Recently the people of Peckham chose their Conservative candidate to fight the next general election in an open primary and hustings. The man the Conservative party chose to preside over the evening was the flamboyant Stephan Shakespeare – former educationalist, campaign manager for Lord Archer’s London mayoral bid, co-founder of Yougov, and now Internet television pioneer.
As he did with YouGov, Stephan Shakespeare is harnessing the power of the Internet to break new ground – this time as the financial backer and head of online TV channel 18 Doughty Street. Mainly a benign and relatively safe News 24 for politicians, Doughty Street has recently branched out in to new territory – the American style personal attack ad. First there was a subtle attack on Gordon Brown’s policies, then last week there was a much sharper, more blatant, more personal attack pulling apart Ken Livingstone’s character.
18 Doughty Street’s attack on Ken Livingstone, artistic though it was, had a basic flaw. The message – ‘Ken’s a commie-sympathising left-winger’ shocked no-one. The public know what he is, and Londoners voted him in anyway. Though the message was weak, in the process of stating the obvious Shakespeare’s video producers set out to drop a bucket of shit over Livingstone’s head, embracing the near-fanatical polarity of American political discourse. ‘Ken has been to Cuba – he cares about Cubans more than you’ stands up about as convincingly as saying ‘David Cameron was photographed hugging a husky – he wants to have sex with a dog.’
The principle of attack ads is simple – keep them short, keep them cheap, make plenty of them, throw lots of shit, and a little bit of shit sticks each time. But then inevitably the political parties adapt, and before you know it there’s shit flying in all directions. After a time politicians are standing in so much shit that the public can’t stand to be near any of them – we lose, the public lose, democracy loses.
Why Stephan Shakespeare believes that British politics will be improved by running personal attack ads, I don’t really understand. He probably doesn’t believe it – his goal is doubtless less lofty: he wants a Conservative government. That means winning an election, and if Labour and the Lib Dems are too slow to adapt to his ads he can prepare them safe in the knowledge that he’s the only one heading in to the next election ready-armed with a bucket of shit. He may have the upper hand for only one election, but in the present political environment one is enough.
The real danger in 18 Doughty Street’s new ads is their ability to sidestep election law. If a political party wants to run a TV ad in an election, it can’t – it’s confined to the Party Political Broadcast. Stephan Shakespeare on the other hand, though embraced by the Conservative party – as in Peckham – is not a Conservative party employee. So long as he doesn’t collude with his party, he is free to use his own money to act as the unleashed attack dog of the Tory party at the next election if he so chooses – rolling out as many films as his wallet can stretch to.
18 Doughty Street’s first attack ad was a national policy attack. It’s taken very little time for Shakespeare’s men to produce a video on a regional level – across London. Imagine what would happen if he went to the next level – local – in an election. In many parts of the country a Conservative sympathetic local press could fall over themselves to give coverage to locally targeted video attacks.The Liberal Democrats must decide how we will respond to this potentially poisonous new practice. Some may call for an air of aloof disdain, others may call for the regulation of online political ads in elections, still more will say that it’s a free country, and if a wealthy man wants to use his money to influence political debate and doesn’t seek to do it in secret then he’s free to do so. Personally, I favour that latter argument. In a liberal democracy, a man (no matter how short-sighted) must be free to attempt to poison the well of political discourse – but his opponents must be equally free to try and stop him.
There seem to be three courses open to us. The first is to hope that the Livingstone ad was a one one off, pray that Shakespeare comes to his senses and we don’t see the like of it again. The second is to beat him at his own game and prepare our own bucket of shit – we have, I believe, equally wealthy and net-savvy backers. The third is to forensically rebut each and every attack he makes against us.
At the last election Channel 4 ran ‘Factcheck’ – a rebuttal service that operated both for and against all parties, seeking to cut through claim and counter-claim and bring out the truth as they saw it. Come the next election, we could have our own version of Factcheck.
Parties are often reluctant to rebut for fear that doing so may give a story legs that it wouldn’t otherwise have. That’s a valid concern – but there’s nothing stopping the party from, say, having a page on its website where it forensically rebuts opposition attacks, without fanfare. As the election continues, we will have a long page demonstrating how low our opponents are prepared to stoop to issue misleading information about our party.
Of course, there is a fourth option – in many ways the easiest to implement, and perhaps the most appealing. Do nothing, and in the process take the hit. Hope that Shakespeare will turn his fire more on Labour than he does on us. It’s a deeply risky strategy – particularly if Doughty Street does indeed ‘go local’ with its video campaigns. Imagine if David Rendle faced such ads when trying to regain Newbury – or Sue Doughty in Guildford. For the sake of our talented candidates in Tory marginals, inaction should not be an option.