At Thursday night’s Slugger O’Toole Tweet Up in the Hudson Bar, Basil McCrea took the opportunity to deliver a more elaborate speech than the informal remarks I’d expected. (Earlier in the evening Máirtín Ó Muilleoir also stopped by for some casual craic.)
The NI21 leader has been unusually quiet for a protracted period, though answered a few media questions after his party’s conference in December, and has been speaking much less sporadically [Ed – you mean, speaking more often?] in the Assembly and out at external events.
While in no way a relaunch of NI21 or its leader, Basil’s speech did give some insights into his brushes with social media and the court of public opinion, as well as his dim views on political commentators, the size of the Assembly and his notion that social media could be used for good in holding commentators to account and campaigning for political change in the Assembly.
A few NI21 supporters were present to hear their leader speak and it seemed noteworthy that @NI21official tweeted out prepared graphics to illustrate key sections of Basil’s remarks. You can watch NI21’s edited version or listen to the full speech.
I have been a little quiet for some time. It’s not that I haven’t been saying things, it’s that people haven’t necessarily been listening to me. Perhaps that’s because people heard me say quite often that I couldn’t comment on certain matters … Tonight I am going to comment on a few things.
You want to know what the last year’s been like? Last year’s been horrible. It’s just been beyond belief. So whenever we talk about Twitter and Twitterati, what happened almost a year ago for some people was a week of interest, a flash in the pan, a bit of a fun and merriment.
For some other people it was the shattering of their dreams, they had put their heart and soul in to things. And for me and my family it was a nightmare.
I put that out to you to understand the power of media and perhaps twitter has in particular. Twitter was the very start of it, the tweets went out, it was the leaks, all of these things. It was great fun, it was a great game, wonderful to be part of unless you were the centre of it.
Basil moved on the law of defamation and said the best definition he could come up with was:
Any communication that harms a person’s reputation; decreases the respect, regard, or confidence in which a person is held; or induces disparaging, hostile, or disagreeable opinions or feelings about that person.
I think I got all of that … I think there’s no doubt that I was certainly defamed and the big question comes back is: was there justification? That’s the sort of thing you have to work out in courts or whatever way you want to go through it.
But it does have an impact on people that are tweeting. You do need to be careful … it’s pretty hard to get your defence right in 140 characters.
The Lagan Valley MLA went on to wonder out loud “why we haven’t seen as much progress on the Defamation Act – that was passed in England and Wales – in Northern Ireland as we might expect?”
Northern Ireland has yet to adopt that and I do hope that some of those things are taken up by the Law Commission.
He cited some negatives aspects of social media including trolls and people being malicious.
For those of you and me who believe that social media is a good thing you do have to be aware that there is a danger of a public backlash, that people are not content with the way that stories are handled.
Coincidentally one of the NI21 supporters at the tweetup unexpectedly found himself at the centre of a story in the News Letter this wekeend having triggered Godwin’s Law* regarding the Ashers case and supporting rally. (Should his employer have been referenced? Should he have been contacted for a right of reply before publication?) [* Godwin’s law states “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one”.]
On the other hand, Basil balanced his critique of social media by highlighting some positives which, for him, included the breaking of the story on Pastor McConnell and the theatrical trouble at The Mill in Newtownabbey.
There were areas where genuinely we did have some impact that came from social media. So you don’t want to loose the whole positive aspect of social media by looking at the negatives.
He also valued the recording of the launch NI21’s council candidates, describing it as “illuminating” and good to be “on the record”. You can listen back to Basil’s – perhaps poignant – speech that morning (and the contributions from four council candidates, one of whom got elected).
Introducing Basil as he got up to speak, I recalled gate-crashing NI21’s
party get-together in the MAC at the beginning of December. AGM
Basil described the interview conducted afterwards as having …
asked some hard questions but came out with what I thought was a fairly balanced and fair report upon the proceedings which was in contrast to other reports that might have come from small regional newspapers.
The News Letter was the only other (old or new) media outlet to attend the NI21 meeting and Basil’s insinuation is that he was unhappy with the News Letter’s reporting. The interview with Basil, Olive and Johnny I posted online was jointly carried out with Adam from the News Letter while most party members were reluctant to speak on or off the record. You can still read the News Letter’s coverage online and judge for yourself if you can agree with Basil and can detect a “contrast” with Slugger’s report. I don’t.
The speech moved on to familiar NI21 themes or tired politics and disillusionment.
Traditional media like traditional politics is tired, formulaic and hooked on the drug of sensationalism. It we’re to tackle the challenges that we’re facing in society we’re going to have to change the way that we report things. You can’t just keep being sensational … It destroys public confidence. What it leads to is politics that is staid and shallow and risk averse and nobody will do anything because they’re just frightened about the knock on the door.
I can tell you I’ve got over that particular phase now. But I know that most people are worried about who’s going to approach them with a microphone next.
So if people are fed up with politics and disillusioned you might say: What are they going to do about it?
Firstly we must stop conflating light entertainment with current affairs … What I see on television and on media is a lot of old lags or if you want to be polite about it you would call them political commentators. What their job is to express opinions. Now the opinions don’t have to be balanced. I’m not even sure how accurate they have to be because their whole thing is to do something that the broadcasters can’t do which is to express an opinion.
But the problem is that because they’re on a particular platform they are endowed with some sort of status that says this is fact. So things that people express as opinion are not really fact; they are opinion. And those people that control the platforms need to be really careful about who it is and how it is that they give credibility to people that are expressing their own opinions.
A balance of two extremes does not represent the middle ground … there is a different view to come forward.
I wonder just who is going to hold these self-appointed experts or opinion formers or opinion offerers to account because it does not seem to me to be the mainstream correspondents.
So there is a role for social media to be able to go and challenge people that put themselves forward as experts but are not elected and say “is that opinion?” or “is that fact?”
From this I read that Basil has a problem with political commentators, and has certainly suffered – justifiably in some instances – from their opinions and columns. Asked to expand on his comments afterwards, Basil seemed to suggest that viewers could be confused and think that the commentators were speaking for the impartial broadcasters.
Frankly is the clue not in the name: political commentator? Commenting on politics or politicians. Commenting, not reporting. The style of language in newspaper opinion columns is very different to straight news reporting. And a report’s analysis of an event is often separated from the main text in a separate box on the page. This post breaks all that and interweaves my analysis and rants in-between the transcript of Basil’s speech. But I’m sure you can tell which bits are factual and which are opinion!
The visual language of television of a panel of experts sitting around a table being questioned and offering opinions is like people sitting over coffee or dinner chewing the cud about a topical issue. The captions that pop up underneath contributors on The View or The Issue describe the commentators roles and non-press organisations.
Commentating in the online or offline world is only as authoritative as the brand and history of the commentator is trusted. Newspaper letters page frequently carry letters from readers criticising the content of opinion columns. Twitter, Facebook and even blog posts run justified and sometimes snarky critiques of factual journalism as well as opinion and analysis. They also tear other online authors apart.
But it feels rich, and even diversionary, for a politician to encourage that social media mob turn their sights on established political commentators (who already get it in the neck with online critiques of their work) and doesn’t at the same time reinforce the need for the very politicians that “put themselves forward as experts” in debates within the local legislature to be equal or greater targets for challenge.
Basil moved on to suggest that the online cats herd themselves into a campaigning movement.
Of course the problem for social media if you were going to [take on this role] is that it’s a bit flakey. It’s a bit of a bubble. It’s a bit fun. Let’s go out and say things, we’ll have a go here, we’ll have ago there. If you’re going to really change things I think you need to be a little bit more serious about the way you put things forward … Social media will really come of age when it stops being a game and starts being serious.
Slugger O’Toole has lost its vava voom as well. It’s become the home of party hacks and trolls and some innocents that [have fallen in] by mistake. It’s not that it doesn’t have some influence – it is read – but it doesn’t have the clout that perhaps it ought to have. Those are challenging words. I’m sure I’ll be slated for it and certainly Mick will not buy me a drink now …
The real issue about social media is that we do have a chance to build a new democracy. The current democracy is failing. People are disillusioned and fed up with all politicians and all politics and sure they just do the same old thing in the same old way.
Who’s going to change it? Well I have to say the turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. So the ruling parties, the ruling powers are not going to change it. Public opinion is going to have to change it. And who might lead public opinion? Social media might lead public opinion. But you’ve got to get gravitas so that people will believe you and will follow you.
There is a need for you I think to find a campaign – a collective campaign – that you can all weight in behind … Because if you can get a success on this then you will genuinely change the democratic process in Northern Ireland and you will get a lot more wins.
So my suggestion is this. I’m sure there’s loads of them but this is the one that gets me. There is a fairly general consensus that MLAs are not really delivering much to society, that there’s certainly too many of them, and that we would be better off with some other system. And despite everybody agreeing this, nobody seems to come up with a way of changing it.
I do think you could do with reducing the number of MLAs. But if you simply reduce them from six to five per constituency, the way that the DUP are suggesting, [Ed – it’s in the Stormont House Agreement] all that that does is drive out the independents or the more moderate people. So I’m not sure that’s necessarily what we want. The reason why we have 108 in the first place instance is that we want to get everybody to have some representation in the Assembly.
So here’s an idea. What about we say let’s drastically reduce the number of MLAs but let’s make the constituencies bigger. If necessary select seven or eight MLAs from a bigger constituency. I know this is getting a wee bit radical, but maybe we could even move the constituencies to be the same as super council constituencies. (laughs in the room) … Let’s have MLAs but let’s have them from a wider constituency because a number of things will happen if you have a bigger constituency.
First of all it would be more difficult to vote manage … When I last got elected we got seven and a half thousand votes for the UUP. The last two in for the DUP got eight thousand votes** … and all of this machination is what gives them their dominance … So I would like you to go out an say we are going to educate, inform and change the democratic process, you can not rely on the democratic parties to do this because turkeys do not vote for Christmas. If you have bigger constituencies, not only will you make it less easy to vote manage, not only will you make it less likely that just being a good constituency rep gets you elected [but you’d] have to do some politics as well. And heavens above you might even get it that politicians have to reach out beyond their tribal trenches to win votes from a wider population.
** Assembly election in May 2011 [source: EONI results PDF]
- UUP first prefs 7253 = Basil McCrea 5571 + Mark Hill 1482
- DUP overall first prefs 18854 across 4 candidates
- The last two DUP elected got 7262 first prefs = Paul Givan 4352 + Brenda Hale 2910 … so 9 extra votes and 1 extra MLA
If you could do that you could really change things. And somebody has to take a lead on this. That is a battle that I think you could win. And here’s the reason why I think you should do it:
Politics in Northern Ireland as in so many other places is failing badly and it’s going to get worse. If we don’t do something we’re going to end up in a really bad place. The old counterbalance that used to be the fourth estate in terms of the traditional media is under pressure because of falling readership, falling advertising revenues, all sorts of pressures on them to try and sensationalise. And they lose the cachet of independence of being able to come along and say “I’m going to tell you the way it is”.
I think that is what social media will do. It needs to build brands that people trust. But it needs to be accurate, it needs to be fair, it needs to be incisive. And if you’re doing all of that, be careful of the defamation laws!
One of the foundations of social media – even for the so-called Twitterati (who I’m sure don’t self-label that way) who apparently have influence and sway – is that they don’t take their orders from the establishment. Social media does its own thing. Cats rule Facebook. Try and own a hashtag for a serious or commercial purpose, and #AskAdams or #McDstories will run the risk of being hijacked or parodied.
I’d hazard a guess (until I find actual figures) that the proportions of people using social media that are politically active and are politically disaffected roughly parallels the overall population. NI21 originally embraced online activity as a way of reaching non-voters. It can never reframe itself as the party for social media users, and it can hardly expect to trigger a campaign that is said to the interests of a shrunken party without sustained emphasis and more detailed justification and evidence.
Aside from that, I’m not personally convinced that larger constituencies would make for better democracy and I’m interested to hear your views in the comments below.
Certainly larger areas are more cost effective efficient if there’s service delivery attached, for instance local councils. But I want my local MLA to know the detail of what makes my town or city tick, what its needs are, what its strengths and weaknesses are. I don’t want a pure policy wonk, or a generalist who can’t deliver for an area. Independents surely have a greater change of being elected from much smaller constituencies where they can be better known and compete against candidates supported by their party machine. (Though I see some merit in a list system topping up geographically elected representatives.)
Despite online activity dominating aspects of my free time, I’m also not convinced that, outside of a referendum, quiet evidence-based lobbying of the people with their hands on the levers is going to be replaced by social media campaigning that brings the serious into what people want to be a fun bubble. Social media can set a mood, but pulling the levers usually requires face-to-face contact and persuasion [Ed – or in the case of Sinn Féin, union strike rallies, a radical Greek economist and internal opinion polling] rather than embarrassment and online harassment. Organise online; militate in the real world.
I’ve added an abridged version of some of the discussion with Basil after his talk when I asked him to elaborate on some points. It’s been shortened and some people’s contributions removed, but it captures the sense of the discussion and doesn’t misrepresent the discussion.
It was good of Basil to come along to the tweetup, give us a piece of his mind, and willingly take questions and challenge afterwards both from me and others gathered in The Hudson.
One reading of Basil’s talk is that he’s suffered at the hands of social media, political pundits and wants to turn the former on the latter. Basil misses the point that there’s an enormous diversity of opinion and approach on social media. Campaigns do form and can be seeded, but they are few and far between – particularly around political ideas and issues. For a time people will come together and raise awareness for Ovarian Cancer or #WeeOscar. But it helps to be personal and engage grass roots support.
But his ideas about social media are interesting given that they’re forged out of a fire of personal experience, even if they’re also filtered through a lens of party political ambition.
It wasn’t the night for announcements about NI21’s future, but we’re assured we’ll be amongst the first to hear when they’re ready to talk.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.