OPINION

Welcome to Harper’s new world ofvirtual politics

PAUL WELLS January 22 2007
OPINION

Welcome to Harper’s new world ofvirtual politics

PAUL WELLS January 22 2007

Welcome to Harper’s new world ofvirtual politics

OPINION

PAUL WELLS

Politics and journalism are both about how we talk to one another. Changes in the news business, driven by technology, are obvious and accelerating. Changes to politics will not be far behind. On Jan. 23, a new online

Washington news operation, Politico, will go live. This is no fly-by-night operation. Its backers have bankrolled a big staff, heavy with veteran Washington reporters. The Wall StreetJournal just relaunched as a sort of daily survivors’ guide, in print, to the avalanche of online news. London’s Daily Telegraph has implemented three daily deadlines for digital content. Most of the journalists we’ve hired lately at Maclean’s work for our website, where ad revenues, still modest, are growing more quickly than ad revenues for the print edition.

In the next campaign, the PM wants to use the Web to make the old media irrelevant

That’s how for-profit organizations cope with an environment in which growing segments of the audience are reluctant either to pay or to wait for news. Free commuter newspapers endanger big-city tabloids whose content is not obviously worth a few quarters’ investment. YouTube destroyed a political career last autumn when the online video site became the place to see footage of the Virginia Republican senator George Allen tossing a bizarre insult—“macaca”—at a Democratic campaign worker of East Indian descent.

Editors’ debates about whether to show video of Saddam Hussein’s hanging were irrelevant: the images got out easily. Music magazines or MTV don’t anoint the hot new bands, Myspace does. When terrorists bombed commuter trains in Mumbai last summer, the Times of India’s first act wasn’t to publish photos but to ask readers to send in their cellphone pictures. All of these are signs of a shift of power, influence and choice from news organizations to consumers. We all had a good laugh a few weeks ago when Time magazine decided “You” were the Person of the Year for 2006, but there was much truth and considerable worry in Time’s choice.

Politics is coming to terms with the new mies, too. With the rise of blogging and videosharing services like YouTube, it’s harder to shut citizens out of a conversation. In the new world, no fact is necessarily obscure, because if a blogger stumbles across it, he can put it before a larger audience. No reporter’s decision that “this isn’t a story” is necessarily final. If no newspaper wants to cover an opposition

MP’s claims of government wrongdoing, he can simply talk into a webcam, post it to YouTube, and email the link to 500 people.

Perhaps most important, the marginal cost of political discourse is zero: you no longer need a TV studio, an editing suite and an ad budget to have your say. The debate over whether Quebec should be recognized as a “nation” began, in earnest, five weeks before December’s Liberal leadership convention. A Vancouver university student, Braeden Caley, produced a short video reminding everyone of Pierre Trudeau’s opposition to Quebec nationalism and posted it on YouTube. By the time they got to the convention, hundreds of delegates had seen Caley’s video. Producing it didn’t cost him a dime.

That’s important. Federal election-spending laws—and Quebec’s Referendum Act— carefully limit campaign spending by organizations, on the assumption that you need to spend to have a voice. Those days are gone. If André Boisclair becomes premier of Quebec and drops the writ for a secession referendum on a Monday morning, by lunchtime Monday I’ll start a Myspace account and add every Myspace member in Quebec as a friend. Then I’ll start firing blog postings, in French, to that audience for as long as they put up with me. Others will gin up YouTube campaign ads using desktop editing suites. Still others will organize campaign rallies on meetup.com or send random text messages to Quebec phone numbers. Our cost: zero. Boisclair’s (or Jean Charest’s) ability to shut us out of what will inevitably be a pretty chaotic campaign: zero.

Politicians are still figuring out how to operate in a world where traditional news

organizations have lost their monopoly. Stephen Harper thinks about this all the time. That’s why his office leaks information to selected bloggers, and why I’m told the clipping service in the Prime Minister’s Office provides Harper’s staff with daily transcripts of seven talk-radio shows from coast to coast— but nothing from the Globe and Mail.

During the 2004 election, Harper asked his staff why he needed to haul a planeload of reporters around with him. By now he will have figured out an answer: an airplane is a handy place to pen up malcontents. The real campaign will be elsewhere. Harper will feed the press pack an event in the morning and another after lunch, then vanish for hours at a time to shoot Web ads; give interviews to local, ethnic and online publications; approve direct-mail appeals to carefully identified elements of the Conservative voter base; and otherwise talk right past us to you, or some of you. The changing media landscape opens up both danger and opportunity for politicians. But the biggest danger would lie in ignoring what’s going on. M

ON THE WEB: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/inklesswells