One of the innovations of the last election was the first ever televised leadership debates in the UK. Indeed, many credit Nick Clegg’s TV performance with the Liberal Democrat’s dramatically raised share of the vote and subsequent kingmaker role in the coalition government.
So, you’d think that leaders would be keen to repeat (or even extend) this experiment given that it was proven to engage with voters and give a chance to discuss the issues head to head. Err, no. Broadcasters have proposed an extended series of three debates, with one featuring Cameron and Miliband, the second Cameron, Miliband and Clegg and a third adding UKIP leader Nigel Farage to the mix. The reaction has been muted from the main parties, while the Green Party (who currently have the same number of MPs as UKIP) taking legal advice regarding their exclusion.
Leaving aside my personal antipathy to Farage and the xenophobic, unthinking attitude he represents, there are multiple reasons for including him in a set piece debate. We have freedom of speech in the UK, he is the leader of a national party with one MP, and I’d hope that the political strategists of the three major parties can come up with a range of counter arguments (that don’t pander to the same baseless xenophobia) if they want to impress the public at large. I do agree the Greens should be involved in some way, but that is just a detail to overcome, rather than a reason to call off the whole exercise.
What is more worrying is the complete lack of interest in a rival proposal (from The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and YouTube) to host debates that would be streamed live on YouTube. The Digital Debate campaign points out that a similar set of four debates at the last US election garnered 27 million views. More importantly it allowed politicians to engage with younger voters, half of whom primarily get their news online. While the exact form of the event is not yet set (and no party has formally agreed to it), streamed debates lend themselves well to sparking discussions on social media, are easy to share and create an online event that will engage voters.
Given that there is widespread dissatisfaction at the limited real world experience of politicians, surely anything that potentially engages them with the electorate can only be a good thing? A quick search on the internet finds that even the candidates for Sherriff of Jackson County in Mississippi were happy to debate online – why then has there been an overwhelming silence on the proposals from the UK’s politicians?
As a PR person I know that there are times when you have to turn down a good idea just in case it leads to unintended future consequences. But at a time when the electorate are so fed up with anodyne career politicians that many will either not vote or will support UKIP, it is time to be brave. Political spin doctors, and their masters, should embrace the online opportunity as a chance to rebuild the political process, rather than shying away from it. Be bold, be modern and make 2015 an online election.
Amidst all the hype about the rollout of 4G and the excitement around fibre optic deployments (note to BT – I’m still waiting, and you said I’d have it in June), the UK has a hidden issue when it comes to communications. Too many rural areas still don’t have a decent, basic mobile phone signal.
In my village, in the middle of Suffolk, only one provider has any reception – and that is just 2G, not even 3G. When the local mast went down for a month last year it paralysed rural businesses, as well as impacting on the lives of local residents. And this is not the Outer Hebrides – I’m less than an hour from Cambridge and Norwich, and 20 minutes from several major towns.
Given my experiences, the news that the Government is considering forcing mobile phone operators to share their networks (so called national roaming), to widen choice, looks like a positive move. Putting aside the fact that the starting point for the new rules was apparently David Cameron being unable to get a signal while on holiday in Norfolk, it should benefit anyone living in the countryside. It will help stem the growing gulf between rural communication ‘have nots’ and urban dwellers with 4G and superfast broadband. A similar system operates in the US, which has a lot more challenging terrain than over here.
Obviously the mobile phone operators are crying foul, pointing out that they have spent heavily on masts in rural areas, and being forced to share their infrastructure will jeopardise future investment. Frankly, I just don’t buy this. Everywhere else they have competition and somehow survive – after all, most people pick a network operator on price/what you get for your money, rather than “do I actually get a signal?” At the moment they have captive markets that they have carved up amongst themselves, forcing people to choose by postcode, not package. Sharing infrastructure makes it more cost-effective and opens up new markets. Additionally the government has promised £150m to improve areas where there is no coverage at all.
The government claims it has big plans to turn the UK into a skills-based, technologically literate society. Entrepreneurship is being encouraged (albeit focused heavily on the media-centric Silicon Roundabout), coding is being re-introduced into schools and infrastructure projects promise faster links between major cities. So far rural areas have been left behind – with high speed broadband projects running late and a lack of skilled jobs hitting local economies. It is time for the government to address these issues or risk creating a two speed economy that deprives those of us in the countryside of the same opportunities open to the rest of the United Kingdom.
On the face of it, David Cameron’s announcement of a £1m prize for solving a ‘grand innovation challenge’ is good news for UK science and industry. The competition will look at the biggest issue of our time (as selected by the public) and then be judged by an illustrious panel, chaired by Lord Rees, the English Astronomer Royal. The Prime Minister likened the competition to the 1714 Longitude Prize which was created to solve the problem of navigation at sea, and which spurred unknown Yorkshire clockmaker John Harrison to develop much more accurate marine timepieces.
All well and good – anything that stimulates debate on pressing problems for mankind and supports scientists and engineers is obviously welcome. Even Cameron’s idea of a ‘Britain’s got talent’-style show to identify the key issue that scientists have to solve is an attempt to put engineering and research back into the mainstream.
But there’s three main problems I can see – and unfortunately they run through a lot of the coalition’s thinking on science, engineering, technology and entrepreneurship.
Firstly, £1m is a pitifully small amount of money for an idea that will solve ‘the biggest problem of our time’. The annual Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (bankrolled by Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and tech investor Yuri Milner) has distributed $33m to 11 winners. And that’s just in one year. The new Longitude Prize is being funded by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and it appears (from what I’ve read) that the £1m is not new money, but is from the TSB’s existing budget. Hardly an expansion of government investment in science and engineering.
Secondly, like all politicians Cameron is driven by short timescales. Solving the problems the world faces can’t be accomplished in a single term in office. Research simply does not move that fast. If the Prime Minister checked his historical facts (perhaps he needs to speak to Michael Gove), this has always been the case. The original Longitude competition began in 1714 but Harrison’s clock was not successfully operational until the 1760s. And even then he was judged not to have won the official prize itself (though he was awarded multiple grants during his lifetime to recognise his achievements).
Thirdly, modern research is a global undertaking. Scientists work with their peers across the world, collaborating to solve problems across disciplines and countries. Look at the Human Genome Project – while the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge made an enormous contribution to sequence human DNA, it was a truly global effort, involving scientists from across the world. So if Cameron expects his prize to be won by a 100% British entry, he’s likely to be proved mistaken.
I really hope that the new Longitude Prize takes off and increases interest in science, engineering and technology. But, like investment in championing Tech City, it smacks of a short term, PR-led approach by the Prime Minister – aiming for headlines, not the lasting breakthroughs that take decades to unlock.
Very few of us like paying tax, but there’s a fine line between legitimately reducing your tax bill and actively avoiding paying the tax that is due. And at a time of austerity where everyone is tightening their belts, there’s obviously a push by governments to close loopholes and maximise the revenues they receive.
Given their high profile and obvious success Starbucks and Amazon have both been the subject of widespread condemnation of their tax avoidance methods, and I’ve covered Starbucks inept PR response in a previous blog. Google was up before a House of Commons Select Committee last week (for the second time), backing up its claims that, despite revenue of £3 billion in the UK, all its advertising sales actually take place in the lower tax environment of Ireland. Google boss Eric Schmidt has countered that the company invests heavily in the UK with its profits, including spending £1 billion on a new HQ that he estimates will raise £80m per year in employment taxes and £50m in stamp duty.
Apple is the next company caught in the public spotlight, with CEO Tim Cook appearing before a US Senate committee that had accused it of ‘being among America’s largest tax avoiders’. Meanwhile, the loophole that sees Amazon and other big US ecommerce companies avoid paying local sales taxes is being challenged by a new law passing through Congress, with estimates of between $12 and $23 billion extra being collected.
Given the close links between Google and UK politicians (Ed Miliband is appearing at a Google event this week and Schmidt is expected to meet David Cameron on his current UK trip), the cynical view is that this is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it does create an image problem for the companies involved, particularly at a time when we’re all meant to be in it together.
Obviously the most popular thing for companies to do would be to re-organise their tax affairs so that they meet the spirit as well as the letter of the law. But that’s not likely to happen given the enormous sums at stake. Instead expect increased calls for global tax reform (so that the organisations involved don’t have to operate the way they are currently ‘forced’ to) and a slew of feel good announcements that demonstrate the level of investment and support for the UK economy by the companies concerned. Being ultra cynical perhaps the whole tax situation explains the huge support by big tech companies for Tech City – it is simply an elaborate way of diverting attention from their financial affairs…………..
Everyone knows that the publishing landscape has changed forever thanks to the internet. The rise of blogs and free blogging software has radically brought down the cost of getting your opinions onto the internet and many blog based sites (such as the Huffington Post) have made lots of money out of the move.
But there’s a big fear that the Government’s new press regulations could potentially threaten small blogs by including them in the legislation. If they don’t sign up to the new regulator they risk high fines if sued by libel by an aggrieved reader. The key test is if it is ‘a relevant publisher’, generating news material where there is an editorial structure giving some control over publication. So by that token, this blog is irrelevant when posted to my own site (though you probably knew that anyway). Except that when it is republished on the Cabume website there is then some editorial control so it suddenly becomes relevant. Essentially if I libel someone Cabume carries the can.
Obviously a small blog wittering on about startups, PR and technology is unlikely to be sued, no matter how relevant it is. But for other smaller, blog-based sites, particularly political ones this opens up a stark choice – sign up to the regulator and face an arbitration system that is focused on protecting individuals who complain or risk crippling fines. It is the same for local newspapers, already suffering due to the rise of the internet. Given the work they do in uncovering local political, public sector and business corruption their trade body The Newspaper Society believes the regulations would ‘inhibit freedom of speech and the freedom to publish’.
My own opinion is that the internet cannot be beyond the law. In the same way that the Lord McAlpine Twitter libel case showed that you can’t repeat false allegations and expect to get away with it, neither should you be able to libel someone on your blog with impunity. But the new regulations throw up a number of questions – what happens if your content is on a US server? Why are student publications exempt? Will journalists set themselves up as one man/woman band blogs to get round regulation? There has to be a more flexible way of regulating online content in the internet age – my relevant/irrelevant fear is that lawyers will be the chief beneficiaries of the new regulations rather than either press freedom or genuine victims of press intrusion.
I’ve always believed that people who take part in daytime phone-ins either have too much time on their hands, don’t have jobs or don’t get out of the house enough. Which of these apply to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg I’ll leave to the audience to decide, but his strategy to take part in a weekly phone-in on London radio station LBC looks like a mark of desperation.
Currently with the lowest poll ratings of the leaders of all three major parties (which is saying something), Clegg’s strategy is to appeal directly to voters by appearing on LBC. After all, his spin doctors must have mused, it was his appearance on the first televised party leaders debate before the last election that pushed the Liberal Democrats up the polls and ultimately helped them into power. So, let’s simply repeat the exercise and people will forget the last couple of years of government, and any policy changes, and just connect to Clegg the man.
Unfortunately, I think they’ve got the right idea but the wrong media for turning round Clegg’s image before the next election. Here’s three reasons that come to mind:
Lack of control
Obviously the whole point of a phone-in is that you have no idea what you are going to be asked. The plus point is that you can get the chance to talk about a wider range of subjects, but normally people on phone-ins aren’t giving up their time to call in and praise you. Hence Clegg suffering a verbal kicking in his first week on the radio. This may improve as he builds a rapport with the audience, but the randomness of live radio was shown by the headline news picked up by the press – Nick Clegg has a onesie, but hasn’t worn it yet.
LBC doesn’t reach a national audience
Having a senior politician on every week is a no-brainer for LBC – it boosts ratings, increases profile and, by broadcasting via the web, means it can reach a wider audience. However, whichever way you look at it, Clegg is not reaching the right voters – hundreds of miles from his constituency and not on a national platform. He’d do better (and show a keener grasp of new technology) by hosting a web chat or using social media to increase his credibility.
Other politicians make you look good
One of the basic reasons that Clegg impressed in the televised debates was that he was a relatively fresh face against the well-known Cameron and Brown. He hadn’t got the baggage they had and so looked good by association. The combination of years of government and being the only politician on show is always going to weaken credibility.
However it is a brave move from the Liberal Democrats who realise that from a communications point of view they need to do something to differentiate themselves and rebuild their fortunes. What next – sending him into the Big Brother house or chairing Have I Got News for You?