This blog collects perspectives on the election you won't find anywhere else, by political experts, based in the School of Politics and International Relations at The University of Nottingham.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Out with the new, in with the old

" 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


  1. Hi Philip,

    I didn't spot in the survey or your post, what's the actual split of political party spend between 'traditional' and 'new media'. I'm sure at this time 'traditional' would be more than 'new media'. But it would be interesting to see the trend over the last two years, which spend is increasing?

    It would also be interesting to see how the survey carried out, online poll (probably not) via phone call/street approach and the demographic approached; a street poll on pension day will produce a different demographic and result to Facebook poll.

    I think what the media is doing is focusing on what's growing, but ultimately what's easy, but my concern is journalism is being 'dumbed down' as the publication of wikipedia articles and twitter posts as fact is increasing.

    'new media' played a part in Obama's campaign, hence it's justified in being the focus point by the media.

    Ultimately, we want our media to ask real questions, not to be lazy and provide us with real important news, sadly this isn't the case.

  2. Hi Rob. We don't have data on the split of spend -- although talk to anyone in the parties and it's clear that they are spending much more on traditional campaigning still.

    The survey is from YouGov, so internet, and weighted as normal. And we don't have many data points -- but the same qs were asked in Oct last year, and trad beat mod then too.

  3. Oh, and one other thing. It's true that the internet played a part in BO's campaign -- but that's what it was: a part. It helped raise masses of money -- which he then spent on TV ads, a traditional US form of campaigning.

  4. Mr Cowley, you LAW made me laugh, so I think you have succeeded in your secondary aim !

    Alan Douglas

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. The job of journalists -- and political scientists -- is to identify and explain political change: that is why the media are focusing on internet campaigning. We already know a great deal about the mechanics of door-knocking, leafleting, and phone canvassing. We know next to nothing about the internet and UK election campaigning. Rather than just take a snapshot, the challenge is to explain the growing relative importance of online media over time. If you compare the NESTA survey with similar surveys from the previous two elections you will notice signficant increases in the public's self-reported assessment of their online sources of political information.

    Two narrower points regarding the NESTA survey. First, yes: broadcast media are undoubtedly still the most important sources of information, but you've been a bit selective about how you've presented the other data. 9% said they would "pay attention" to "political websites," which we can presume means the official party sites. This will always be a highly purposive, minority pursuit, just like reading manifestos -- something that traditionally less than 10 per cent of the electorate have bothered to do. But look at the NESTA figures for online newspapers: 19% say that they will pay attention to those in deciding how to vote.

    The second point concerns survey design, particularly the assumption in this and many other surveys that there is a sharp distinction in people's lives between what they do online and what they do offline. Take the example of "Discussions with friends/family," which 25% of the NESTA respondents said would be important for their voting decision. Will all of these discussions with friends and family be face-to-face? This is highly unlikely. Many of these interpersonal interactions will be mediated via email and social network sites and they will therefore be subject to various mediation effects that are characteristic of the internet as a medium. The internet is not like other media. It is a many-to-many medium where interpersonal flows of information matter a great deal, even though these are very difficult to identify and measure in traditional opinion polling models.

  7. I wouldn't disagree with much of what anonymous says, except his or her opening statements. Journalists - and political scientists - do want to explain change, but sometimes it's just as important to focus on what hasn't changed, else you get a very misleading picture. A journalist writing about the election isn't sent out to 'explain social change' but to explain the election.

    And I'm afraid we actually know very little about how the parties are using direct mail. What we do know suggests that they are doing so in a much more targetted way this election. But we don't really know, because no one is researching it, or writing about it.

    The article wasn't claiming that new social media wasn't important - it is, I'm a fan of it, and I want to know how it is being used. But you get a completely skewed picture of the election because of the excessive focus on it.


Please feel free to post comments, but please note comments are moderated, and offensive or inappropriate comments will not be published.