Will online campaigning finally come into its own?
All the blogs and news channels are running with a story about emails written by Damien McBride that allegedly suggested smears that could be run against leading Conservatives. The emails, sent from a Downing Street account, have rather unfortunately (for the Government, obviously) ended up in the hands of the irrepressable Guido Fawkes, and he has reputedly given then (‘for pleasure, not profit’ according to Iain Dale) to a Sunday Newspaper.
The Telegraph has given a front page over to breaking the story which Guido characterises as Labour damage-limitation (he cites the friendship between political editor Andrew Porter and McBride), and an anonymous Downing Street source has accepted that these were ’embarrassing’ and ‘smutty’.
The initial reaction could be that this is another blogosphere storm – a continuation of the Guido v Draper flamewar that began some months ago. I suspect this is bigger. Without having seen the emails themselves, I can only imagine how lurid their contents, but as well as covering all the blogs this marks itself out from most blogosphere dust-ups in that it implicates (or suggests the involvement of) Downing Street officials, ministers in the Cabinet Office and thus that terrifying question which defines a serious story: How much did the Prime Minister know?
Some people will dismiss this as simply an uncovering of what goes on in every campaign, and that the only differentiator is that McBride is paid for by the taxpayer under the Civil Service code. Technical breaches will be admitted, and Labour will try to move past this quickly. The Conservatives are unlikely to let them, but it is not the official response from the Opposition that will be interesting.
The UK blogosphere is still very young – PB.com recently celebrated its fifth birthday, and Guido’s blog doesn’t turn 5 until September. The last General Election in 2005 belonged, in terms of media, to the late 20th Century. The next General Election will be different.
For all the rhetoric about the internet transforming politics – and it is a useful tool, if not a silver bullet – the major effect it is likely to have is that the internet will provide the major milestones of the campaign for the Traditional Media to report. The internet will continue to grow as a medium, but its biggest short-term contribution is likely to be as a breeding ground for the salacious process stories and gaffes that the MSM love to report.
Email, text bulletins and online donations played their part in Barack Obama’s campaign, and Ron Paul didn’t really leave the internet at all. But more than the use of these tools, the most important impact of New Media on the 2008 elections in the US (and the 2006 Midterms before them) was in breaking ‘Snipergate’ (Hillary’s remembrances of Bosnia), the George Allen ‘Macaca’ scandal that cost him his Senate seat in Virginia, the leaking of the Rev Wright sermons on YouTube, the ‘birth certificate’ questions, the Bristol Palin pregnancy, and Obama Girl. These were picked up by TV Networks and Newspapers, and characterised the campaign and drove its narrative.
This could be only the beginning.
UPDATE: Guido has just named Tom Watson, Minister for Digital Engagement in the Cabinet Office, as being involved. If true, this could lead to Ministerial resignation(s) (always a benchmark for a scandal). A market on this would be very interesting, if our many friends in the bookmaking industry are reading.
I doubt I’m alone in noting the irony of the Minister for Digital Engagement being imbroiled in a blog scandal. I’m feeling fairly digitally-engaged this morning.
PLEASE NOTE: Mike Smithson has a post on the Tories internal polling over on PoliticalBetting Channel 2 – our sister-site will have regular updates and stories, so add it to your blogrolls.