Guardian column: Webcameron & 18 Doughty St.

Here’s my latest Guardian column, a buffed-up version of posts I wrote for Prezvid about Webcameron, 18 Doughty Street, and Nicolas Sarkozy and the conservative movement in small TV in the UK. (Nonregistration version here.)

In a video response to Webcameron, David Cameron’s new-age network of tiny TV, pioneering parliamentary blogger Tom Watson wondered why his fellow liberals don’t have an internet channel of their own. Why, indeed? While in the US, it’s the Democratic presidential candidates who are invading YouTube, in Europe, conservatives are leading with their lenses: Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy in France show their candid sides and answer voters’ questions via video. Even German chancellor Angela Merkel, hardly a LonelyGirl15, is podcasting and vlogging. And at 18 Doughty Street, UK conservatives have their own internet talk-show network. Is the internet providing the European right with its Fox News?

While in London, I visited the eponymously addressed 18 Doughty Street, a Georgian townhouse where founder Iain Dale and a staff of 20 produce five hours of live talk TV a night from a studio equipped with seven cameras and an expansive couch. Their programming day starts at 7pm with news summaries, interviews with politicians, and talk shows about politics, the arts and blogs. Because it is live, it is interactive; viewers can send in messages and join the chat. Next viewers will send in videos; Dale gave 100 cameras to contributors who’ll make a show of shows, a bit like a multimedia Comment is Free. And soon, they’ll expand to America with a rented studio and satellite time.

The audience is not yet huge – one to 2,000 viewers at any moment (more than 2,500, Dale says, and their technology would teeter). But he’s getting the audience he wants, including big media. And he drew a quite large crowd, more than 250,000, watching a commercial message they distributed on YouTube that asked us to “imagine a world without America”.

All this comes at an astoundingly low price. Factual programming on US and UK networks costs about £150,000 per hour. A US network executive recently bragged that his digital studio had reduced his cost to £500 a minute. Dale runs the network with a one-year, £1m investment from YouGov founder Stephan Shakespeare and I asked him to estimate his production cost. Subtracting bandwidth and internet, he calculated £70 per hour. So expect more talk online, much more.

Next, I visited Sam Roake, head of Cameron’s web strategy, to learn about Webcameron. Roake sees this as an opportunity to interact. Each week, the team follows Cameron out and about, and get him to answer five citizens’ questions, three of them voted on, Idol-like, by the audience. “To be genuinely candid,” Roake says, “you have to talk about yourself as a person.” Politicians, he advises, must switch “out of politician mode”. I ask whether Cameron would take his web camera to No 10 with him. “If it suddenly stopped,” Roake answers, “that would be seen as a very cynical move . . . You can’t stop communicating.”

This, he argues, is “a new stage of politics” that is about “sustained dialogue with the public.” Note that this is similar to the rhetoric about blogging I heard from Gordon Brown at Davos: “You cannot make political decisions now without people being included in the decision,” he said. “The age of the smoke-filled room is over.”

I asked Roake to give advice to the American presidential candidates now making small TV and he said they must not see this as broadcast TV. They should respond to voters by name: “See them as people who want to engage with you.” He recommends being “personal, open, spontaneous”. But most of all, he said, don’t script and spin your videos.

When I wrote this on PrezVid, my video blog that follows the US 2008 campaign through web video, Watson’s web producer Tim Ireland chimed in, saying that “Cameron’s early broadcasts were very much scripted affairs” and calling his family setting “window dressing”. It was that setting that Labour MP Sion Simon spoofed in a YouTube video that fell flat, forcing Simon to apologise and giving Webcameron more publicity. All politics is spin. Saying you don’t spin is, after all, spin.

I emailed Ireland to ask him the question I posed above: why are conservatives leading in small TV in the UK? He responded with four words: “Blair, money, timing and spin.” And then he added a fifth: Iraq. Yes, that might explain why Labour pols in the UK and Republicans in the US are rather camera-shy these days. But this, too, will change.

  • Will Pollard

    I am struck by the last point about how Iraq creates a block for open discussion with Labour pols in the UK. I think “Blair” and “spin” are part of the same set of issues. there are elections coming up in which the Scottish Nationalists may do well, partly on opposition to Iraq policy from Labour. I am one of those who will vote Liberal Democrat though voting Labour before 2003. During previous elections Dr Reid has told the Today radio program that Iraq is not much of an issue and that the media invent tension within the Labour Party or with former supporters. This would be much harder in an online conversation.

    I started a topic on Guardian Talk earlier Today before I found this

  • http://deleted Tansley

    Interesting that the ones involved in the ‘thorny’ issues avoid the camera. Yet another bellweather to show who’s feeling guilty and who isn’t, I guess…

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  • Conrad

    It’s definitely a case of the opposition having less to lose than the incumbent Government, and therefore they’re more willing to try alternate methods of gaining supporters. Governments are certainly tied somewhat by the day/day operations of actually being in power: pretty much all opposition parties are concerned about is getting power themselves, so therefore they have much more time to try different methods.

    That said, I don’t think it’s OK for politicians (even incumbent ones) to ignore new forms of media like video blogging, although I fully expect that the Republicans in the US, and Labour in the UK will throw their weight behind it when it gets closer to the next elections in each respective country.

    Frankly, this is one of the “love” part of my love/hate relationship with elections. All it takes is the possibility of gaining/taking away power to get politicians to make a little effort. And most of the “hate” aspect is due to politicians having to pander to lowest common denominator mainstream media (the tabloids are way too strong in the UK), so it’s win win either way.

    Also, as an aside, a friend of mine is appearing on 18 Doughty Street tomorrow night! What a small world.