How The Long Tail can help raise the level of public debate

by Stephen Tall on July 17, 2006

What are we to make of the fact that ConservativeHome, the unofficial refuge for Cameron-baiting right-wing activists, is now more popular than the official Conservative Party website? Or that LabourHome, within three weeks of its launch, is one-third of the way towards catching up the number of visitors clicking on Labour’s approved site?

Arch-blogger (in every sense) Guido Fawkes – whose reach, post-Prescott, exceeds all four of those sites – argues: “It means party members want honesty and openness, something that they don’t trust the official channels to provide.”

There is doubtless an element of truth in this – though untrustworthiness is too trite an expression – but I think it misses two bigger issues at play here. The first is that readers want to be stimulated: to be encouraged to think, not told what to think. Let us take a look at examples of the main stories on offer from the political parties’ websites:

Each of these news releases puts forward their party’s case clearly in plain language. But there is no light-and-shade here, no subtlety, no nuance, no context. I didn’t feel any the wiser for reading any of them. No wonder, then, that Internet-savvy readers are ordering their brain-food à la carte in preference to the set menu.

The second issue – one which has received blanket media coverage in the last week – is the application of Chris Anderson’s theory of ‘The Long Tail’: “culture unfiltered by economic scarcity”.

New technology is simultaneously democratising the tools of production (with MySpace helping break Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen) and cutting the cost of consumption (just 79p a pop at iTunes). But this explosion in supply and availability means that we, as consumers, are increasingly reliant on authoritative, trustworthy filters to deliver us to our destination – from Amazon to GooglePageRank to IMDB.

And this is where unofficial party political sites like the US Democrats’ Daily Kos – and, in the UK, ConservativeHome, LabourHome and Liberal Review – are increasingly finding their niche among their party’s supporters and activists. If you want to know what others who share your political beliefs are thinking, they are where you start.

And all power to the collective elbows of those who run such sites, say I. But something troubles me: why must all the interesting conversations happen on unofficial sites? Why is it our political climate feels so stifled, yet official party websites dare not open the windows to let in a breath of fresh air?

Even to ask the question is to stand accused of naivety. After all, which political party is going to stick its head above the parapet knowing its rivals have an armed rapid response unit just slavering to open fire? The outcome would be all too predictable.

The first time any internal dissent against Party X’s leader was voiced, however mildly, the opposition parties would pounce: up would go the cry, “Splits!, rancour!, chaos!”. If alternative, controversial policies – for example, legalisation of drugs, or abolition of the monarchy – were put forward for debate, rent-a-quote opposition MPs, whose brains have long since melted to mush, would leap forward to “condemn wholeheartedly this irresponsible proposal, so typical of Party Y”.

Their cry would be taken up with alacrity by the media, eager to feed the insatiable hunger of the 365x24x7 news cycle. By the time Jeremy Paxman and John Humphries had savaged Party Z for failing to answer either Yes or No to a series of complex questions, all three parties would have realised that any attempt to initiate grown-up debate was scarcely worth the hassle. Which is why, too often, they duck the challenge.

How can politics be rescued from this ever decreasing circle of vacuity? Well, it requires a recognition by both the media and politicians that theirs is an unhealthily symbiotic relationship – and that while they feast off each other, the public is going hungry.

In an excellent article, ‘Saving Political Journalism’, for The Political Quarterly, Peter Riddell identifies four key risks to proper news coverage in the media:

1. concentration on major stories to the exclusion of secondary stories – for instance, a new government initiative, a select committee report;
2. the focus of foreign news on the crisis of the day, with none of the historical context;
3. the obsession with personality politics: “Hard cases, or scandals, make good stories, not analysis or a sense of perspective and proportion.”
4. and the shrinking of newspapers, with one-story ‘viewspaper’ front pages relegating all other stories to the fringes.

The response of Jeremiahs like John Lloyd – author of ‘What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics’ – is to throw up their hands in despair: news journalism is debased, debauched and defunct, beyond redemption. But a lot depends, as Chris Anderson has argued, on our view of newspapers:

“If you define a newspaper as the thing you get 12 hours too late and that leaves ink on your fingers, well that isn’t going to be a growth industry. If you define newspapers as the creative writing and reporting of smart individuals, that’s clearly a growth industry.”

Which is where the Internet and our Long Tail come back in. GuardianUnlimited has been pioneering the way ahead, catering for increasingly niche markets, but recognising the aggregate reach of those individual niches. The variety of its three top stories visited today proves the potential is there, and demonstrates how exclusive web content and print cross-over can sit harmoniously together:

1) Over-by-over: England vs Pakistan
2) Profile of Justin Timberlake: ‘I’m bringing back sexy
3) Last-minute talks in Lebanon amid fears of ground invasion

Here, then, is the opportunity for newspapers to ensure the work of their political journalists always finds an outlet, published on their website rather than being spiked, unread: as Peter Riddell observes, “doing this would vastly broaden the range of political news that readers – of online sites, as well as printed pages – could choose between each day… Journalists would also feel more motivated, seeing a seamless link in their work between the morning paper and the online site.”

Politicians need also to face up to their responsibilities. If the digital age, and the application of the Long Tail theory, is going to enable greater availability of reasoned analysis and rational debate for a public increasingly hungry to access it, how can politicians actively participate? How are they going to enhance the conduct of civic discourse?

Let’s start with the ringing words of Leo McGarry, The West Wing’s fictional Chief-of-Staff:

“We’re not gonna be threatened by issues. We’re gonna put them front and center. We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy.”

The days when political parties were solely reliant on the press and TV to get their message across are dead and buried; and yet still, all too often, politicians trade only in verbal and written soundbites intended to catch a news bulletin, or worm their way into a journalist’s copy. Of course, ensuring the media understands your message will remain crucial: crisp news releases are not only critical to gaining attention, writing them is an important and useful skill in its own right.

But politicians and party campaigners have the opportunity now to think bigger, to use their websites to respond to the public appetite for healthy and free exchange of ideas: to elevate our thinking.

This isn’t, though, simply about official party websites. It is about the whole culture of our political process.

Politicians need a new vocabulary, one which eschews the cheap debating tricks so beloved by smart-arse hacks, and instead has regard for the public’s intelligence, crediting them with an ability to understand that few issues are black-and-white, and recognising that no political party has a monopoly in either flaws or truth. It’s easily said; less easy to live up to, especially in the heat of electoral battle.

Enthusiasm for new ways of doing things is often dampened down by careworn veterans who argue that it’s dangerous to raise expectations. But, perhaps, even just once, we could try living up to them?