For anyone under 30, it is unimaginable that there was a time when the only music programme on British television was one half-hour per week, called Top of the Pops, broadcast on BBC 1. The good thing about that was that it was hard to miss.
Today, Sky TV gives me access to no fewer than 29 channels dedicated exclusively to music! Some are on air 24/7. So, one modern music channel could fit a whole year’s worth of Top of the Pops into a little over a single day’s output! The bad thing about the new regime is that it is impossible not to miss great chunks of it.
It’s the same with politics. Not that long ago, a politician knew what to keep an eye on: the newspapers, the radio news, the evening tv news, the once-a-week current affairs programmes. It was hard to miss something important.
It was also hard enough to get your opinions aired, with so many politicians competing for such limited media space.
Today, the good news is that any politician can create their own media space, publishing what they want, when they want. The bad news is so can everyone else, so trying to keep tabs on the massive expanse of the modern media is like trying to nail jelly to a tree.
In the new media world, everyone – every citizen – is a journalist, broadcaster, photographer and publisher. Citizen journalists need nothing more than a mobile phone and WiFi access to broadcast to the world – no deadlines, no editors, anyone can just do it!
The positive opportunity is fantastic. I had no real presence in cyberspace until I entered politics. Today, I have a website, a Facebook account and I Twitter. I get great quantitative and qualitative feedback from everything I do, and the bonus that I know the old media monitor my stuff and follow-up in the same way they react to regular news releases.
But it’s not all positive. I got a taste of the dangers one day in early 2010. There was speculation I was leaving the Victims Commission to run for Parliament and I bumped into a friend on Bedford Street in Belfast. “Here’s the guy everyone wants to talk to”, he said, referring to the speculation. I nearly told him it was true, but decided to change the subject instead. I found out later, he Twittered from the very spot we had just spoken that the speculation was not true (BTW, I did not deny it, he just interpreted my words as a denial). But the speed with which he was able to broadcast what I said was frightening.
Another example: someone speaking at an internal UUP meeting made a witty riposte to a comment from another speaker, just to lighten the mood, before giving his substantive answer to the question. But a member of the audience Twittered the joke as a statement of fact, not as a joke, taking the remark so far out of context that could have been very damaging to the individual concerned.
The bottom line is this: the new media world both liberates and constrains politicians. It liberates us by breaking the umbilical cord that dictated that we could not publish our views with the aid of the old media outlets; but it constrains by making us mistrustful that there is any context in which you can truly relax, speak you mind, crack a joke, or start to tease out a new policy in public.