Anyone who reads newspapers on a semi-regular basis will have noticed that, recently, there's been a steady, drip-drip increase in stories about Leveson and freedom of the press. Newspaper stories about newspapers aren't generally big sellers - people vaguely approve of a free press, disapprove of hacking the phones of crime victims, and little else - but the editors of these papers aren't too fussed about that, because the aim of these pieces is to draw battle lines in the fight over Leveson, and the possibility (promise? threat?) of stronger press regulation in the near future.
Surprisingly, they don't want it, comfortable as they are with the current system, whereby they all get together, in a gentlemen's club, drinking brandy and wearing smoking jackets, and agree to do whatever the hell they like. (Some descriptive details here may be incorrect.)
Press regulation is a tricky muddle right now, but it serves as a handy introduction to a more interesting issue - the media generally, and the role it plays in our politics. The gentlemen's club that these newspaper editors occupy has always been a very powerful one, framing national debates for millions of people and dictating terms to politicians on issues like Europe, immigration and crime for several decades. They have also been capable of unleashing campaigns of staggering vitriol against people they deemed worthy of such attacks. Today, though, they are in retreat, thanks to falling circulation figures and the onslaught of new, free media sources like Twitter, Facebook, and sites like this. That's why the newspaper editors are getting in a tizzy over press regulation. It's not because they value a free press more than their own beloved mothers, or that they are against a Stalinist crackdown on the media. It's because a new regulatory body or legislative act might possibly impinge upon their power and influence - and they can't have that. Not at a time when they're already struggling to retain the sway that they still possess.
The 2010 general election was, on balance, still an 'old media' election. Indeed, the newspapers seemed, throughout the campaign, to be almost activist, pushing aggressively for their desired outcomes. The Sun, in particular, led the way, bashing Gordon Brown at every opportunity. The Conservative papers then united to try to destroy Nick Clegg, after it seemed likely that he would deny David Cameron a majority. The classic example here, of course, was the Daily Mail's wonderful headline, 'CLEGG IN NAZI SLUR ON BRITAIN', which surprisingly wasn't quite as it seemed.
Did the newspapers swing the 2010 election? Probably not. They don't sell in anything like the numbers that they once did, and people don't really do what the newspaper tells them to - although, of course, those who read newspapers daily are more likely to vote, particularly the elderly. The reason that 2010 was still an election run in conjunction with the old media models was because of the political parties themselves, which still hadn't got the hang of managing the new ways of getting their messages across. Back then, a leaflet through the door and a sly word in the ear of a prominent journalist were still the overt and covert ways for politicians to campaign. Social media accounts and digital campaigning were still being honed - people talked of doing an Obama and harnessing the youth vote through Facebook and Twitter, but didn't really manage to do any of it. Ipsos MORI say only 44% of 18-24 year olds voted in 2010, in an election that was routinely described as one of the most important in a generation, particularly for students worried about tuition fees and EMA. This clearly wasn't the first great deployment of an effective digital strategy for vote-gathering.
2015 will be different. The squeals and squawks from the newspapers show their fears that they won't have any relevance in this brave new world, and rightly so. The British press savaged the reputations of politicians over the past decade (admittedly, for good reason), but now they're the ones with an image problem. Plagued by the phone-hacking scandal, harangued for attacking the dead and gatecrashing memorial services, they are desperately staggering around, clinging to any vestiges of credibility and yearning for the good old days, when their influence was broad, wide and left unquestioned. Those days are gone, and politicians need to realise that too. An election strategy for 2015 that aims to please the papers and let them put across the party line will be far too shallow, and lead to failure.
Any political party that's serious about winning at the next election, especially when it comes to the votes of young people, has to ensure they've got a formidable digital strategy lined up. Watching the Twitter feeds of the main parties, especially during their recent conferences, has been fun, as they rehearse their virtual lines for the campaign. There's nothing these guys love more than a good hashtag - #freezethatbill, #britainontherise, #forhardworkingpeople, etc., etc. This stuff is important, but it's a bit superficial, and suggests that they've not fully engaged with the possibilities of these new mediums. In the run-up to 2015, the parties should be making YouTube videos of their leaders and policy representatives, little five-minute chats that sketch out their policies on the issues that matter, and seek to make them go viral. This would help to visualise manifesto pledges, and explain what the parties are promising, in ways that are both accessible and understandable for a wider audience. Another good idea would be to create a Twitter feed, much like the rail companies have done, which responds to tweets from voters, specifically with the aim of informing people where their nearest polling station is. This can't be beyond the imagination of a relatively tech-savvy graduate with location services enabled on their laptop. What better way to make young voters aware, quickly and easily, of how and where to vote?
Political parties currently treat new media as an advertising platform, like the leaflets through the letterbox and the billboards at the roadside. What they don't seem to have grasped is the idea of social media as a way of spreading genuinely useful information - and tooling it towards harnessing voters who may otherwise have fallen through the cracks. The old media is dying. The party that can make the new system work best for it can surely gain a major advantage in 2015.