Next Monday PICamp has another run out. This time it will be a strand in a much larger event in London called Reboot Britain. As some of you will have noticed in the last few weeks much of my focus over the last week or two has been less about politics (well, this is summer with a local recess coming up rapidly, and just before the marching season gets properly underway), and more about the politics of the media and what it’s doing to our politics. Or, in the case of Irish politics, according to Gerard, not doing to our politics. The world is changing, probably quicker than most of our institutions are capable of recognising. In the US this has put many big media institutions out of business and set others on an inevitable course for bankruptcy. In the meantime the demand for transparency and accountability that was at first facilitated by the Freedom of Information Act (2000), then latterly frustrated by the slowness and obfuscating mechanisms in delivering data and information that smart and insatiable public now believes is its automatic right to view.
In terms of politics, the changes have been as sudden as they have been dramatic. As Patrick Hannan notes in his excellent new book on British democracies recent adventures, one of the reasons the cash for peerages scandal took quick purchase was there was no shortage of evidence that “the political parties were prepared to use any wheeze just to stay on the right side of legality that would allow them to take handsome donations from the rich”. In the 2005 election campaign the Tories shipped £16 million in secret loans (which, unlike donations, didn’t have to be declared), whilst Labour came in just behind them on £14 million.
It’s far from clear where all this is leading. Nor of all of it necessarily going to be good for us in the future. There is some evidence from the states that much of the online infrastructure is being captured by the political parties themselves by captivating their own online audiences, leaving the mainstream media to play catch up on themes of the day.
Add to this the fact that there are no guarantees of anyone’s investment in this technology, and this ‘revolution’ is both unpredictable and scary. But as Matthew D’Ancona deftly puts it in this excellent 4IP debate the technology only defines a change in the means, not the ends. There is no ideological ‘telos’, or end of the Internet. That remains in the hands of the users:
PICamp will have a range of sessions, some like the charter for interactivity in government… We’ll look at the possibilities offered by crowd sourcing policies through unfenced communities; as D’Ancona says, the white heat is no longer in expensive and centralised think tanks, it’s where communities of intelligent others congregate… We’ll ask is there a way that the blogosphere can promote decency in political communications and honesty and fairness from big media?
As the backend falls off conventional commercial public service broadcasting and traditional local newspaper cultures is there a new way for local government to converse with the public at a grass-roots level? And related in many ways, can local government meet the essential pre-condition to any political decentralization that it demands from central government?