Stairway To Heaven (because the lift’s out of order)

*slightly longer blog than usual because of university module requirements

Self reflection (the business end of action research) is frequently used as an emotional lever in the media. Broadcasters have for decades placed individuals in strange settings, set the cameras rolling, switched on the microphones and waited. Wife Swap and Big Brother are examples of this popular ‘fish out of water’ production technique. 

Participants react in a variety of ways.  Some find weeks of self-reflection and self analysis a positive experience. Others are afflicted with a variety of feelings, some overwhelming, and unravel under the spotlight. The results can be revelatory, occasionally deeply uncomfortable.

One news story this week reported on the down side. It featured a decision by an individual to immerse himself into something he thought he knew about backfire. Grimsby Labour MP Austin Mitchell was one of four MPs from the main parties to spend a week living in some of the country’s troubled estates. He was embedded into a family on a Hull council estate as part of Channel 4’s ‘Tower Block of Commons’. 

Mitchell, with 33 years service as an MP, initially agreed to take part to put the case for council housing, a solid socialist principle and something close to his heart.

He wanted to see life on the inside, for himself, and for once not rely on lobbyists, commentators and perceptions partly formed by the media. Like all MPs willing to participate in the series he felt such an experience could develop into a call for action and a genuine lasting legacy.

From day one Mitchell- the oldest participating MP at 75- was going to adopt a different approach with one significant condition.  While the other parliamentarians were happy to sleep on the sofas in their families flats, Mitchell and his wife moved into their own flat on the estate.

There are no media reports suggesting problems during filming but last week while the series was midway through transmission Mitchell wrote on his blog that the series was a big mistake claiming the production company responsible for the programme didn’t want to plead for improved conditions for council tenants but had set out to humiliate him as a greedy and out of touch MP.

He wrote: “Press releases about the programme briefed against us from the start. Result? A deluge of abuse about MPs but nothing said about the neglect of council estates, the betrayal of council housing, the need for new builds and innovations, the plight of tenants penalised by poor facilities or the betrayal of Bevan’s vision of mixed communities by turning them into dumping grounds.

“A disgrace. To Channel 4 for putting it out. To Love Productions for its cynical distraction of the real story. To me for taking part in the first place. The bastards.”

His performance got a mixed reaction from his Grimsby constituents on their local newspaper website:

“Mitchell seemed to have no idea what happens in the real world. Hull has the same problems as Grimsby, so I would assume from this programme Mitchell has never interacted with local people and does not realise drugs are rife and lots of people live in appalling conditions.” Lesley, Clee

“He looked puzzled at the methadone treatment … I had no idea … he stuttered … and then asked where his Telegraph was! And this from a bloke who crows about his support and concern for the people of Grimsby? A town that is racked with heroin and other serious drug addiction. Well, I for one wasn’t surprised to see how false and out of touch he is. Thinly disguised disgust was evident on his face when he was “interacting” with the people he was with on the programme. He couldn’t get away fast enough could he?” Liza, Outathere

One key question arises from this episode. As a method of self reflection on an issue clearly close to his heart was reality television the best way for Mitchell to go about it? A former TV journalist,  he would surely know how commissioning and programming works. Taking MPs out of a privileged comfort zone into a tower block was always going to be a key area of content for the production team.

Mitchell’s constituency is Grimsby, down the coast from Hull. The readers comments would suggest similar housing issues there. If Mitchell wanted to know more about living conditions in run down estates it would seem clear that he could have done it any day of the week – quietly and out of the glare of the TV arc lights in his own back yard. He could have stayed as long as he wanted, absorbed everything and after suitable action research (such as speaking to residents, social services and local authorities) and self- reflection come up with a conclusion and some workable solutions. Instead he chose the TV reality show route. And ratings alone are not going to change living conditions.

This BBC news story on Mitchell’s comments: 

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8518748.stm

programme details from broadcaster:

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/tower-block-of-commons

The MP’s website:

http://www.austinmitchell.org/blog

Comments on MP’s performance from the public:

http://www.thisisgrimsby.co.uk/news/m-MP/article-1798225-detail/article.html

OMG Elections Are Like So Uncool :(

  

*slightly longer blog than usual due to requirement of my university module. Please stay. It really is quite interesting  

Forget Spring, there’s the whiff of electioneering in the air. The Prime Minster bared his soul in a deeply uncomfortable appearance on  primetime TV (remember he once said he should be judged on policy and not personality) and MPs are all smiles when they meet you- a bit like the bin men at Christmas. 

It’s always an exciting time for the media. And it’s not just because of the overtime. Up and down the land plans and policies are being dusted down and updated with the prospect of new occupants at Number 10 adding a little extra spice. 

So what’s going to be different this time round? Well it’s all to do with us. Academics, commentators and analysts are currently knocking out reams of column inches in traditional print and online as they forecast the impact (or not) of what can be loosely termed ‘social media’ on the General Election. 

The explosion in content sourced and created by you and I and shared across platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and multiple other variations can be seen either as a genuinely alternative form of citizen journalism or a ‘fifth estate’ which complements what is already being provided by mainstream and traditional media. 

Many are scared by it. Many more are intrigued by its possibilities. For the established media the deep dilemma is controlling the content. Open the gatekeeping door just a little and the tide of video, audio, blogs, opinions and data can rapidly transform from exciting and alternative if occasionally random to overwhelming and heavy on resources. All agree on one thing. It cannot be ignored. 

For the BBC it is proving a taxing issue. Late last year the view from one senior executive could be summarised as ‘proceed with caution’. And then last week another effectively told staff to ’embrace or clear off’. Why this apparent divergence of viewpoints at such a high level, and only a few  months apart? 

There are two possibilities.  The first is the impending General Election. Social media could play a part for the first time in the UK and BBC execs need staff to be ready for it. The second is a gentle kick up the backside after an academic study (by one of its own staff) showed the BBC was lagging behind other major organisations in how it used this alternative content. 

Let’s deal with the first. Friends = votes. A simple but effective mantra for all strategists. It is now established that Barack Obama was swept to power partly because his team used social media in a more intelligent way than  adversary John McCain. On election day Obama had three million supporters on Facebook; McCain 600,000. Appointing Chris Hughes- co founder of Facebook, to his campaign team, undoubtedly helped. 

Obama ‘got’ Facebook while McCain’s team pretended not to care. One of his team memorably said ‘Facebook users aren’t McCain voters anyway’. Fact: there are 36 million Facebook users in America. 

While happily using established social networks the Obama team also created http://www.my.barackobama.com This gave them complete control over the content and the messages they wanted to put out. It was an intriguing mix of messaging centre, rallying tool and revenue raiser. Over 1 million joined. 

Obama used You Tube, Flickr and Twitter as well. With over 130,000 following his every tweet his team used it as a broadcast tool. They did not reply to any tweets sent their way. And it served a purpose. Obama stopped using Twitter once he was in the Oval Office. 

In terms of staff he had a core team of 11 which increased to over 30 as election day approached- working solely on online campaigning. 

So, what impact will social media have here on this election? On the BBCs College of Journalism website Claire Wardle  (link below) says there are fundamental differences in campaign culture, the political system and fundraising regulations between the two countries. And the candidate was special in so many ways. 

The key, she argues, could be empowerment. Obama’s campaign reached out to the grassroots who campaigned for him. They believed in him. They did his bidding. Here the main parties are still preaching to the faithful. She warns that ‘treating supporters as passive consumers of scripted one way campaign messages will have limited impact.’   

She worries that political coverage will be focussed on a cock-up….an unguarded or ill-judged comment or moment by a candidate captured on a mobile phone and used for scurrilous purposes when what should be happening is that social media can provide new ways of reporting politics which might re-engage some voters. 

Savvy BBC staff will of course be ensuring the right people are being followed and alert to all the electronic twists and turns the election campaign could and will take.  This commitment to understanding and using content from outside their newsrooms was underlined by BBC’s new Head of Global News Peter Horrocks last week. And boy did he upset some with his rallying call which had all the grace and sensitivity of BNP minders. 

Until now the broadcaster has been very cautious about social media. In the BBC’s current Editorial Guidelines ‘social media’ is mentioned only once- when Editors are warned to ‘consider the impact of re-use’. News supremo Helen Boaden- in November- said social media promised new possibilities but also opened ‘a can of worms’ . She said the corporation would ‘increasingly rely on specialists to slice through the gossip, trivia and opinion that can find a breeding ground on the internet’.   

Now Horrocks tells the team that social media “provides journalists with a wider range of opinion and gives them access to a whole range of voices” and warns them to effectively close the door on the way out if they fail to embrace the possibilities of Twitter and RSS feeds. 

The Guardian website was inundated with views.  One blogger wrote: 

‘BBC News: We now bring you some breaking news of an alleged explosion in Baghdad. @johnnyfudgeface on Twitter says “OMG just saw bom in market. WTF?” Some photographs have also been posted on Flickr but we can’t show you those. Now here’s some florist who wandered into the studio to give us his worthless opinion’  

Meanwhile another was more supportive: ‘crowd sourcing using Twitter would be just a fashionable buzz phrase were it not for the fact that it actually works. You genuinely get stories from this and it’s a neat way of keeping in touch with part of your audience. What we understand by the word ‘media’ is undergoing a huge transformation. It’s absolutely correct for Horrocks to encourage his people to keep abreast of where the audiences are and to engage with them on their terms.’  

So, a wake up call ahead of the election or simply a wake up call?  Late last year a chunky piece of research by BBC staffer Nic Newman (link below) compared the BBC with significant mainstream multi media publishers including CNN, The New York Times, The Telegraph and Guardian and examined their use of social media. It was not the most flattering of documents for the corporation. Too much navel gazing, not enough clear action (like CNN). 

It is of course not an easy one. Just how open to all should the BBC be? As a public service broadcaster there is perhaps extra pressure to ensure that anything which appears, from whatever source, should be verified and checked and not act as a shop window for every conspiracist and madman. One BBC staff member recently told me that to get too involved in social media would damage reputation and credibility because of the sheer amount of content which would need to be checked. 

My view….there’s a happy medium. Put simply provide great stories and they will come. They will want to discuss and share. Ultimately by creating content which is watchable, linkable and findable the BBC can be at the heart of this new generation of  multimedia multi sourced material. Horrocks knows this. His language was clumsy but the message was a clear one to those inside and, just as importantly, outside the corporation. 

Links:

The Guardian article

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/pda/2010/feb/10/bbc-news-social-media

Claire Wardle’s BBC Blogs:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/journalism/blog/2010/02/will-social-media-change-campa.shtml

The academic study:

http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/documents/Publications/The_rise_of_social_media_and_its_impact_on_mainstream_journalism.pdf