The leaders’ debates have been nothing less than revolutionary. Only a week after the first one aired, it already seems inconceivable that we ever had elections in Britain without them. An aimless, vacuous shadow-boxing contest has exploded into life, the voters have some real substance to chew on rather than a ticker-tape feed of soundbites and gaffes, and the papers have been spewing out reams of analysis. Politics has a new darling, Nick Clegg, though whether the infatuation will last until polling day is far from certain.
You can measure the impact of the debates by the column inches and megabytes of analysis in both old and new media. The opinion polls haven’t been this volatile for decades – certainly not since 1992, and even then they were collectively wrong rather than unpredictable. There is genuine uncertainty as to the outcome. Arguments over who manipulated or left out which poll have become more heated than the contests themselves, which have been constricted as a spectacle by a tangled web of rules. Like the initially tame Big Brother (remember Nasty Nick and his pen and paper?), the debates will surely be less fettered in future years and we’ll all sit around chuckling at the notion of a clapping ban.
What the debates have done is reassert, if only temporarily, the primacy of old media. This election was sold to us as the one in which new media would finally be grown-up enough to take on the old guard. But while the blogosphere in general, and Twitter in particular, have added an extra dimension to the coverage, the anticipated wholesale takeover hasn’t happened. The fact that the debates have been the main event of the election so far demonstrates that television still has considerable power to set the agenda. When old media is bold enough to take the lead, everyone else still follows.
Despite their recent financial woes, newspapers are still far from dead and buried. Conventional wisdom says the internet will destroy newspapers because anyone can now be a news platform, without the need for expensive things like printing presses, offices and staff. But conventional wisdom is often wrong. In a free-for-all news environment, reputation is king. And reputation depends on providing reliable, strong, comprehensive news coverage. Even though their executives have spent the last five years inventing new and extravagant ways to shoot themselves in the foot, newspapers still possess the resources and the brand image which, if they can find a way to exploit it online, give them a huge commercial advantage over the masses of bloggers and news websites. This ought to be an opportunity for television and newspapers to rediscover their mojo and secure the best pitches in the new media marketplace. It remains to be seen if they’re not too punch-drunk to rise to the challenge.
AND ANOTHER THING: Congratulations are due to my old alma mater, The Herald, for winning Newspaper of the Year at the Scottish Press Awards last night. Many people involved in the esteemed old journal’s rollercoaster fortunes over the last few years will be staggered at this choice; some may even be seething. But at a time when Scotland’s newspaper scene has resembled a game of Russian Roulette played on top of a cliff in a strong gale, The Herald has unquestionably been firing on all cylinders. In that context, this award is thoroughly deserved by Donald Martin and his management team.
And it could so easily have won the Scoop of the Year title too, given Mr Martin’s close ties to Steven Purcell, the erstwhile leader of Glasgow City Council, now enjoying an extended absence from politics after succumbing to a stress-related coke habit. Curiously, despite Mr Martin’s proudly proclaimed membership of Team Glasgow, an informal lobbying network whose only other publicly named member was Steven Purcell, The Herald was one of the last newspapers to go big on the story of Mr Purcell’s downfall. It later emerged that Mr Purcell had been questioned by Strathclyde Police about a drug-related matter, and subsequently by his colleagues, as long ago as May last year. As the editor-in-chief of The Herald heads off for pastures new, it will be interesting to see if any news organisation raises the question of exactly what he knew about his Team Glasgow comrade, and when he knew it. Especially as the ‘dark season’ between Mr Purcell’s chat with the police and his resignation spanned much of the period during which Mr Martin was busy producing Scotland’s Newspaper of the Year.