"...to focus on their internet strategies whilst ignoring their direct mail operations, is like reporting on a football game by describing the corner kicks in loving detail but ignoring the goals."Marcus Aurelius said that a man’s worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions. I’m not sure what that says about me, given that one of my ambitions is to go on Stars in Their Eyes as Diana Ross.
My second ambition, however, is to have a law named after me - like Godwin’s law, or Parkinson’s law, and so based on the media coverage of the election so far, here’s a first go at Cowley’s Law. It’s this: there is an inverse relationship between the importance of any election campaign technique and the amount of media coverage devoted to it.
The immediate spur for this eponymous claim was the defenestration of Stuart Maclennan, the former Labour candidate for Moray, found last week to have been using his twitter account to post some near-to-the-knuckle (and in a couple of cases, way beyond the knuckle) comments. Yes, Maclennan was brought down by things he wrote on twitter, but it was merely the vehicle by which he broadcast opinions which made his candidature unsustainable. There will no doubt be similar moments over the next few weeks. But there are always have been. Remember Howard Flight, the Conservative vice-chair sacked and then barred from standing again as a candidate in 2005 because of things he’d said about spending cuts? There was nothing web 2.0 about that – his comments were made at an old fashioned meeting – but his fate was the same as Maclennan’s.
No Luddite me, and so this isn’t an attempt to ignore or downplay the importance of the internet or new social media. On which I would recommend an excellent blogpost by Mark Pack (originally given as a lecture to our postgraduate students at the University of Nottingham), or James Crabtree’s fascinating article in Wired, detailing the way the Conservatives are using the internet, and especially the way that they are buying up google adwords, allowing them to target their online message. Both these pieces show that its effect of the internet on politics is much more nuanced than people often think. All the parties rightly take the web and new social media much more seriously than they used to. Crabtree quotes one Conservative staffer saying that in the past the person in charge of the website was also the person you went to ‘if your Outlook broke’. No longer.
My problem is more the balance of the focus between the ‘new’ and the ‘old’ in how the election’s reported. For example, until this weekend’s story about Labour’s supposed targeting of cancer patients – a story denied by the party – I’d not seen a single article about the way the parties were utilising direct mail. Who are they targeting? How are they doing it? What messages are they prioritising? Ditto leaflets. Yet polling evidence from the British Election Study – from February, so before the parties really stepped up their campaigning, but the most recent we’ve got – showed that these old fashioned techniques totally outstripped the new. Those contacted by mail and leaflets outnumbered all of those contacted by other campaigning techniques combined. Of those contacted by the Conservatives, for example, 89% had had something through their letter box, compared to 18% by email. And would-be Labour supporters were just as likely to be contacted by one of the oldest forms of campaigning going, a knock on the door, than by email (12%), and more likely to have been phoned (14%) than emailed.
And a survey released today showed how just a tiny minority of voters expected to get information online. Only 9% of voters questioned in a poll by Opinion Matters for the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) said they expected to get information from political websites and 5% from emails sent by politicians. Compare that to 63% said they would find out about the election from the TV, 47% from newspapers and 27% from radio. It’s interesting that this story does not seem to have been picked up yet in the media: do stories about how the internet isn’t that important just not have legs?
None of this is to decry reporting on the way parties are interacting with the internet, but to focus on their internet strategies whilst ignoring their direct mail operations, is like reporting on a football game by describing the corner kicks in loving detail but ignoring the goals. We’d do well to remember another law, the one named after Willie Sutton. He was the bank robber who when asked why he robbed banks, reputedly replied ‘because that's where the money is’. If only journalists covering this election would do the same. Go where the parties are devoting their money and efforts, and report that.
Professor Philip Cowley