Leaders' debates

So now they're over. We've had three debates and ITV, Sky and the BBC have been given a crack of the whip at giving the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems a crack of the whip. I think it's fair to say that these US style debates are here to stay but has the experiment been a success?

1) It got people talking: It most certainly did. And not just talking but tweeting and blogging and Booing and Facebooking and YouTubing and all other kinds of social mediaing. There is always a buzz of excitement around a general election but it has been more pronounced this time with water-cooler talk straying from Glee, football and the latest meme to the leaders' debates. And lets face it, after the apathy of 2005 when somewhere between 45 per cent and 60 per cent of the population voted. #success

2) It brought the politicians to the people: Previously to see a leader in action you had to watch carefully edited clips or an interview from a journalist who quite frequently had an agenda be it political or simply the furthering of their own public image (yes that's you Paxman). #success

3) It highlighted the difference between the parties: Certainly each leader was given a soapbox to display their ideologies and opinions. However, they often couldn't agree on what that was. How many times did we hear a leader say 'that is not what our manifesto states' or my personal favourite from Clegg to Cameron: 'Let's assume that every time you talk about our policy, you're going to be wrong'. This did not help with clarifying the parties' stance on issues, if anything is muddied the waters further and identifying exactly what a leader's opinion was became almost impossible. #fail

4) It highlight the opportunity for choice and change: There clearly was choice in that there were three parties represented but two of those parties have swapped power in the UK since 1918 and the third held power before that and has been third ever since. What these debates did was reinforce the prominence of these three parties to the detriment of the wider political democracy and the anger of the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens and UKIP. I fear that votes for the minority parties will fall further this year as they struggle to make their voices heard. #fail

So on those four points it would appear to be in the balance but in my opinion, the first two are relatively superficial in that they are involved largely with engaging the electorate with the principle of the election, not with making and informed decision.

As I have already stated, these debates are here to stay - any leader not wanting to talk part would be hideously ridiculed and branded a coward. But perhaps a change to the format would be preferable.

Why wasn't the debate taken to Scotland and Wales with Alec Salmon and Ieuan Wyn Jones given a voice in parts of the UK where they enjoy huge support

Why haven't the Greens and UKIP been given a chance to get themselves heard? Surely that can only add to the opportunity for democratic choice.

Also do we need a referee and not just a facilitator? How many people are going to listen to Clegg and Cameron disagree about what it says in their respective manifestos and then scurry away and see who is right? I would have loved Dimbleby to step in and say "Actually David it does say on page 98 of your manifesto that blah blah blah, are you telling us that is incorrect?" I’m not na├»ve enough to think there is never any ambiguity in a manifesto but at least it would help us make an informed choice.

Still, it has really livened things up on the comedy front with Twitter abound with cracking jokes and comments. Of course some people tried a little to hard but here's a selection of some of my favourites:

@sugarshamen: "90 billion pounds on Trident missiles? Thats hardly enough for even a small nuclear holocaust! We'll be a laughing stock."

@charltonbrooker: "Bloke sitting to the left of questioner has a beard like one of those iron-filing magnetic novelty face things"

@markclapham: "How did all these people see the version of the #leadersdebate where Cameron was remotely convincing? Special 3D glasses with the Sun?"

And then of course you get this great screen grab (although it as, as far as I am aware, taken and circulated by Conservative campaigner @TimMontgomerie before being picked up and used by virtually all media outlets today)

Picking a new Twitter design

Just updated my background image in Twitter.

I felt that as I was now a serious member of the Twitterati (ie completely hooked and spending more time tweeting than I do talking to my wife) I should have some form of personalisation.

Difficult to know what to plump for though.

I thought of a pic of the kids but that seemed so Facebook. After all, the primary function of Twitter for myself is networking on the professional sphere.

So perhaps an image of the University of Gloucestershire where I am employed as a senior lecturer in online journalism? Mmmmm a bit too corporate perhaps, especially when you consider that all views expressed are my own and not representative of the uni (happy now, legal people?)

As I love the internet and most of my Tweets involve it then I should show that but then I needed some kind of image?

Something from War Games with Matthew Broderick or even Terminator came to mind but it seemed way to negative (man they were scared of computers in the 80s). But then this Charles Darwin quote came to me:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change."

I always use it when explaining the print media's relationship with the internet as it exemplifies why some newspapers are struggling to survive as they failed to adapt to change when the wonderful opportunity called the internet came along.

So I found this wonderful picture:

It shows an image Darwin made from plant and animal life.

Stunning picture and it caught my eye immediately.

Makes me feel slightly pretentious but then you don't have to look people in the eye when you're on Twitter do you?

Mind you, I have opted for the tile design and I think it looks a bit busy and might annoy me quite soon.

That's the great thing about the internet - you don't like something then go back and improve it. It's a journey, not a destination.

The Age of Opinion

One thing the internet has truly enabled people to do is to air an opinion to an audience outside of a (formerly) smoky pub.

Online News is full of opinion - blogs, comments, Tweets, Boos etc etc and most of it is welcome despite the BNP's attempt to ruin it for everyone. This is something I welcome as a vital part of the ongoing democratisation of the media.

But forums are where it starts to fall apart for me. Of course I may still suffer from PTSD from my time managing forums for Newsquest Oxfordshire (hence my hatred of the BNP who repeatedly targeted our boards for spamming/trolling sessions).

Have you ever seen a news or sports forum that doesn't descend into name calling? Have you seen one where people share thoughts and consider others' views?

I'm not sure I have. I have, however, witnessed hundreds of ill-informed, soap-box mounted rants which don't seem to do anyone a favour.

Take the issue of refuse collection in Oxford. Councillor Jean Fooks changed from a weekly collection to an alternate recycling and general waste collection. Some people took umbrage at not being able to create as much waste as they liked and mounted an anti-Fooks campaign.

This focused on the issue of rats in the city and how this new scheme had led to a huge increase. Of course, it hadn't and for those reading the small print on the Oxford Mail (local papers love a protest true or not) would have spotted that the increase was due to Severn Trent ceasing to trap the sewers as they had done for decades.

But on an on this raged on the forums. Any time it was pointed out to the anti-Fooks what Severn Trent had admitted they claimed it was a conspiracy. The whole things became pointless as any discussion was ruled out by the swamping effect of the antis.

I used to be a bit of a 606 addict where I would go to 'discuss' rugby. My suspicions about 606 being, well, crap were first aroused during WC2007 when a sizable number of posters repeatedly called for Matthew Tait to be played at fly half. Matthew Tait had never played fly half at schoolboy level but somehow was expected to do so on the world's biggest stage.

But 606 got worse. It's just a place for whingers and wind-up merchants.

Wales are rubbish - everyone hates England - Martin Johnson was a rubbish player - Chris Robshaw is good enough for the All Blacks etc etc

It's just tirade after tirade. I don't think people even read other posts before wading in which kind of makes the whole things pointless.

Recently I have been seeking out forums about the iPhone thinking they would be more upstanding. But even there we seem to have the Montagues (Jobbites) and Capulets (other smartphones) waging verbal war.

I think there is a book in this: The Forum Effect and the Departure from Reason. Mmmmm I think I'll get on to OUP.

Then of course there is a major issue with defamation on forums. It is almost impossible to proactively monitor these sites and you risk libel and contempt of court every day.

With the Government taking a keener interest in online news every day I am sure some form of over-the-top legislation will be brought in to prevent the open-access to these forums. Attempts have already been made to take action against posters and one failure will not put people off

Anyay, as much as I love Twitter and Facebook and the Internet in general, some of the things I discuss will have to remain in the pub where at least people pretend to listen before ripping me to shreds!

My eyes, my eyes

God I love the internet.

I went to an optician recently (Vision Express since you ask) just for a wee check up. That in itself has little to do with the internet.

But they did the full on retinal scan/picture of the inside of my eye thing. Which was interesting in itself but then to top it all off, offered me free copies of the pictures if I went on their website.

Of course I did so I did and here they are for you all to enjoy.

Fascinating no?

I panicked slightly when I saw the white cloud on old lefty but nothing to worry about, it's just similar to a birthmark. Phew.

It's only a little thing but I can't help feel that this has made my life richer somehow.

I spend all my time thinking about how news organisations can best use the internet and then something simple comes along and blows me away.

Don't even get me started on my love affair with my iPhone.

Paywalls and me

So Murdoch is going to charge for the Times and the Sunday Times and now we know how.

Same week we found that out that the Johnston Press experiment had been a spectacular failure - although real figures have not been published.

Of course, it isn't really a surprise that Johnston's experiment failed when you consider the titles they decided to experiment with and the fact that that regional media has already lost so much ground to other (free) outlets such as hyperlocal sites, blogs etc et.

But what about Murdoch's experiment? I think most people expect it to fail and fail in a pretty high-profile way.

But perhaps we first need to define what success would be.

I suspect that Murdoch will not mind losing 90 per cent of his unique users if his profits increase by even just one per cent.

However, to the Guardian it is all about reaching as many people as possible but in 08/09 lost a reported £36.8m and has now had to sell off the Manchester Evening News in a bid to prevent further massive losses to the group.

It's going to be an interesting 12 months - short term I can't see the paywall working because of the number of options we have. And of course, the BBC is, and probably always will be, a free option.

I am glad someone has gone for it though even if has to be Murdoch. There is so much emotion around this - even the term Paywall is highly charged. It's not a term you use for anything else and I have never heard Rusbridger and co demand an end to the news vendor's 'Paywall' as I hand over my £1 for the Guardian.

Longer term, finding a way of getting readers to pay for online news as they have for printed news is a workable way of ensure the industry remains strong and democratic. We might lose a few publications along the way but I the industry is a bit flabby and losing some titles may even help in the long term.

It's a shame that any attempt to discuss the BBC's role in the future of the media and its role in society and democracy is beset with squawks from the left about 'clipping the wings of public service broadcasting' and screams from the right about unfair competition.

The truth is somewhere in between but we need to debate it and debate it like adults at some point rather than sounding like Cameron and Brown on PMQs otherwise I fear for the future of online news.

Questions which need answering:

1) Is the licence fee really paying for online? If so then how so when it is has hardly changed since online and digital tv spread the BBC's resources even more thinly.

2) How much commercial work is the BBC doing abroad and how much is that dictating programme making and web development in the UK?

If the answers are yes and not much then I vote for the BBC to stay as is but I remain a sceptic until these things are proven.

Still, as it happens I don't even read the Times anyway so it won't bother me too much right now but let's see what Lebdev does to the Indie.

Last time I spoke to Simon Kelner he said they were considering introducing an honesty box for online payment. That would be interesting to see in action in the UK but it failed in Miami.

Dan and Dan on The Daily Mail

Thanks Dan and Dan.
Of course it makes me feel even worse for working for the Daily Mail in the 90s but still worth it.