Will This Election Be Won On TV – Or On The Web?

Fifty years after the US, Britain has a TV election debate. Peter Judge asks whether new media will be more powerful

Today sees the first ever TV debate between party leaders in a British General Election campaign, and many people have suggested it is time we should be moving on to newer media.

Britain is about fifty years behind the times, with the heavily stage-managed debate that will air tonight, based on the tedious debates that have dominated US elections since the 1960s.

Some commentators have pointed out the irony of Britain launching into TV, just as the medium begins to look old and tired, compared to newer media: “This may be the last campaign where TV is the dominant medium,” said Conservative Tim Collins – ironically enough, on the even older medium of radio (the BBC’s Today programme).

Internet’s role in the election

The Internet is already featuring strongly in the campaign. Twenty-four year old Stuart MacLennan was ditched as Labour candidate for Moray in Scotland, when people noticed pre-existing rude tweets he had made.

The major parties are making a point of getting their manifestos online, along with as much debate as possible.

Meanwhile, every poster or broadcast made by the major parties is being skewered online by an army of Photoshoppers – although the anti-Conservative spoofs are way ahead of the lame anti-Labour ones, which are actually being put out by the Conservative party itself (and it is supposedly the “nasty party”).

Whatever happens tonight, the debate will be surrounded by Twitter responses – some channelled by ITV – and will be spoofed on YouTube and elsewhere, so the TV debate will itself become an Internet event.

TV audience still dominates

But to claim the the TV debate itself is old hat would be to lose touch with reality. The five million people who watch the debate will be about ten times the size of the Internet “audience” for election material. Many people will simply never see the election on the Internet because they are not there.

Three quarters of people over 65 are not on the Internet – making up forty percent of the electorate – and even amongst under-25s, one in six is not on the Internet, according to veteran pollster Sir Robert Worcester of Mori, again speaking on the Today programme.

So this go round, we still don’t have an Internet-driven election. But we’d have to say we are moving very strongly in that direction.