Thursday, January 29, 2009

Are No. 10 Tweets Party Political? And if not why not?

I revisited Bob Franklin's argument of the blurring of information and party politics last night and today found the perfect example. No 10 Downing Street has a twitter feed, it basically tells read followers what Gordon Brown is doing, for example "PM has spoken of the importance of the digital industry in a speech on "Digital Britain" - read more at http://www.number10.gov.uk/... from web" and often does respond to followers' questions. However one interesting response to a question asking why the PM is talking about the NHS and not MPs' expenses issue is "The matter you refer to is a party political / Parliamentary one - as civil servants I'm afraid we cannot comment on this". Now where is the line here. Is GB talking about a new constitution for the NHS party political, well it is clearly promotional and demonstrates activity on an institution close to the public heart. Also the inclusion of a link draws followers towards a page on the No 10 website that is even more promotional: the NHS under Labour offers more choice, pledges for access to drugs and specialist care, ok it never mentions a party but it clearly promotes the government which is run by a party. So, by the same token, why would any statement on any other issue suddenly be party political if the NHS is not? While it would be wrong for the feed to include attacks on David Cameron or the Conservatives, as that is clearly party politics, where is the fine line that the authors of the tweets are treading?

5 comments:

tiny tim said...

What poppycock- I hope other readers clicked on the link. The NHS constitution was suggested by charities and pressure groups, who fed into the final document via the consultation. The government "considered the case" for a constitution and finally agreed- the page simply set out what new rights people had i.e. it actually is a good news story and to imply that it's party spin is disingenuous. Verbatim from the page:

"the document sets out, for the first time, what patients, staff and the public can expect from the National Health Service. It also contains a range of pledges such as providing universal access to recommended life-saving drugs and vaccines, enabling patients to see a cancer specialist within two weeks of referral and the right to make choices about one’s own care."

How the hell is that party political? Which party are you suggesting disagrees with this constitution?

Where to draw the line would be a good question if they weren't simply explaining what the government's up to, and what benefits these actions might bring- an approach every bit as controversial as someone saying "I'm thinking of going to the cinema to see the Watchmen- I've heard it's good"

Darren G Lilleker said...

Thanks for your comment and I do take your point. There has been a huge debate on the line between promoting and informing - see debates on government advertising in Australia for example and the work of Sally Young in particular. Equally, in the UK, Bob Franklin's work in the two editions of packaging politics discusses just this point. This is the proposed link to party politics: the government pledged to ensure all those diagnosed with cancer see a specialist within two weeks, this was set as a target for all hospitals and in particular those wishing to gain trust status. This was consistent with the advise of independent bodies, however the government set the policy. Of course everyone agrees with the policy, though there are detractors on implementation. However, any information that states that government has set out expectations for a part of their service provision is not simply giving information but also stating a range of things about that government, its attitude towards health care and mitigates against negative coverage. So, regardless of its informative nature there is some impression management going on implicitly if not explicitly. Thus I maintain there is a fine line between party politics and government information and when there is, as in the UK, a party in government all communication is linked to both party and government. Politics is about image, perception and impression; No. 10 tweets are as much part of the management of those as they are about information. If they were not they would be a rolling news feed which supplied every piece of information, including negative statistics which do not appear. Happy to agree to disagree or to debate further. By the way, I do not think the practice is inherently wrong, I think governments need to be able to communicate their achievements in a way that is not filtered by the media; so see No. 10 tweets as a good thing. However, one of the problems with it is that if they communicate into a conversational and interactive environment they should expect questions. As Jennifer Stromer-Galley argued almost seven years ago, one of the barriers to interactivity is having to be specific about policy; the danger with No. 10 tweets is that if they make an announcement in a few words (as tweets have to be) then are asked a question it is too easy to say "we have informed you but to go beyond that is to be party political"; slightly going beyond your comment but wanted to add that. Love to hear your views on this Tiny Tim as I think it is fascinating area for debate.

Tiny Tim said...

Well I’d say be tempted to say that a rolling news feed would be better than twitter, since the latter is inescapably an interpretation of events, although would question whether raw data leads to a ‘fairer’ impression since statistics themselves often require interpretation, and an understanding of context and methodology.

Not only that but the newsfeed itself would have limited characters to form a message within- and suddenly we’re coming up against the ability of online systems to stream data, let alone the ability of humans to take it all in. Imagine if crime stats were streamed- in order to have a complete picture including positive and negative aspects, one would have to watch the stream constantly, and take everything in.

Maybe a No10 tweet and feed entry saying “Crimes stats available here (tinyurl etc etc)” is ultimately the way to go, rather than linking back to a press release.

I also agree that there is a fine line between party politics and government information, although in this case the topic chosen exists in a sort of quantum state- being simultaneously government information, party policy and the general will of charities, other parties etc. Hence it’s not the best vehicle to prove your point.

It’s all of those things, so it’s disingenuous to suggest that it’s just, or mostly, party promotion. If it was about, say, knife crime, it might be easier to prove the point. If the tweet was, “knife crime down” when teenage knife crime was up, one could argue that only half the story was being told, but again, their interpretation of the context leads us down the road to journalism- which even in the economist et al, to judge by their letters pages, leads to contentious or incomplete impressions being given.

Ergo, I find it hard to see this as party spin rather than an inherent difficulty in communicating the business of government. There may well be blatant abuses and plugs from time to time- in which case of course people are right to catch them out for it.

An additional strand I’d chuck in is the difficulty of releasing sensitive information. Politics is like poker- you don’t show your hand during the game. You can imagine how many topics would be of interest to people- private contractors, foreign governments or rival politicians for instance, trying to screw the government one way or another. I’m a long way from being an apologist for the government, but I think it’s important to understand the difficulties from their perspective, particularly when so many goods and services are procured from the private sector.

Darren G Lilleker said...

I think you are absolutely right in terms of it being compelling evidence of the difficulty in presenting government policy.

I think for me there is a sense of it being an image management tool. It tells us 'Gordon is doing good things', I await a 30 Millbank tweet that says Gordon is doing bad things.

Good or bad example, maybe you're right but my fundamental point is this: there is a civil servant who is employed to tweet positively about No. 10 and its current incumbent but they are in the privileged position of being able to hide behind civil service independence when asked a question - there are a range of occasions when there are no answers at all or a generic 'we don't do that'.

I think that it is party political and is part of a image management strategy but also think it is a useful tool. What I find annoying is the hypocrisy and personally would suggest that a civil servant does rolling news feed while what is currently being produced should be done by a party employee or intern.

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