The importance of Twitter to political news and journalism
Photo: Girish Gupta

The importance of Twitter to political news and journalism

| Feb. 28, 2010 | Manchester, England

A 20-minute documentary featuring interviews with former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, his son David, Conservative blogger Iain Dale and Lib Dem Head of Press Sean Kemp

Photo: Girish Gupta

Gone are the days of the press jumping on the Twitter bandwagon, the days when every other story on the Guardian’s website was about the social networking site with which people can update their status and have it instantly read across the world.

The site proved its worth for more than just filling Guardian column inches during the demonstrations in Iran when protestors—cut off from the outside world—had just internet social media to tell journalists, and the world, their plight.

Twitter has also shown its worth in natural disasters. In the Haiti earthquake, the New York Times and other media spearheaded a campaign in which Twitter was used to reunite relatives and friends with those lost in the disaster. The site has also shown its worth in getting news out of disaster zones, with many of the world’s news networks using it as a first port of call.

At its best Twitter can be all of the above. At its worst, it is vacuous and self-indulgent, pandering to teenagers across the globe.

Last week I popped down to Manchester’s Town Hall and watched former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott give a talk to young Labour supporters, campaigners and candidates on the importance of Twitter and social media. Prescott, in his own independent style, enjoys using Twitter to connect with the electorate without having to have his thoughts skewed by journalists.

“The traditional way the Labour Party would have done it would have been to send out a leaflet, talk to some editor or some friendly reporter… but if you actually talk to them, you’ll wonder whether the reporter and editor think it’s important. You’re not going to get very far,” said Prescott.

“The mistake that some politicians can make it to get their researcher to do it for them and it becomes clear they’ve used their speech to put out the party message and people switch off,” Prescott continues, voicing the idea that politicians have to demonstrate that they are in charge rather than a Whitehall mandarin. “So it’s important to maintain credibility.”

Prescott told his audience about his appearance on a BBC television programme. A Twitter message had asked him to use the word “coconuts” during the interview. The politician immediately saw it as a test that he was actually using, and taking note of, his Twitter audience. Prescott passed the test.

“How many people actually watch Sky News? Perhaps 100,000. How many people are on Facebook in the UK? 25 million. How many people are on Twitter? Three million. Those are big numbers,” says Prescott’s son David, essentially his father’s press officer.

“I think for MPs it’s important because it’s a way of direcly communicating with people that are actually interested,” said Sean Kemp, Head of Press at the Liberal Democrats.

Kemp continued on Prescott’s theme of politicians getting straight to the voters without the journalist as the middle-man. “You can try and talk to people via the media but you can’t guarantee it’s going to sound like what you wanted to say. With something like Twitter, it’s a way you can talk directly with people.”

The case of Trafigura demonstrated Twitter’s importance in making a laughing stock of some of Britain’s archaic laws which allowed a superinjunction—an injunction by which no one could even mention the presence of the injunction—to be put on a question raised in parliament about oil company Trafigura. Carter Ruck, a law firm, had requested the injunction, however, were pressured by the Guardian’s lawyers to alter its terms.

It all seems to be lots of self-promotion. Even journalists, myself included, will put up links to their own articles. However, as John Prescott identifies, this self-promotion is very different from previous methods. It also forces those using the service to keep it real, as Iain Dale puts it so well, denying the journalists to swing a quote their way by pulling it out of context, for example.

Twitter has proven itself to be massively useful on many, many different levels. From saving lives in Haiti, and other disaster areas, to forcing a former Deputy Prime Minister to use the word ‘coconuts’ on a BBC interview, something that would not have happened just a few years ago.