Shiny floor democracy

I expected little of the debates. I thought they’d slot into the campaign like all the other more-or-less artificial election media gewgaws and gimmicks: like party leaders going on kids TV or trying to skateboard or shear a sheep or whatever. I expected a slightly embarrassing, highly stage-managed performance. Something a bit cheesy and certainly not a source of information.

So, like everyone, I was surprised when the debates turned out to be:

A source of comparative information about the candidates and their positions. Honestly, we’re so accustomed to the idea that you can’t derive useful information from a politician’s raw discourse – that it’s all spin and that you have to pass it all through some kind of media-provided filter to get to the truth – that we all assumed the debates would be like that, only more so. And they weren’t. Something about the format, something about putting the three of them up against each other, something about hearing their statements together, seems to provide more genuine understanding. As a viewer, at the end of the first debate, I felt I’d been able to hold up and compare both the substance and the presentation of the three leaders’ positions in a way I’d never done before. Blimey.

A genuine alternative to a monstering from Paxman. The debates, in fact, seem to make the grillings dished out by Humphrys, Paxman, Boulton et al seem clumsy, unproductive, old-fashioned – just as Robin Day and his 1960s school of combative interrogation made the old, “anything to add, Minister?” deference seem old-fashioned in its day. If the three-way debate with its strict rules actually catches on, I think the broadcast bruisers are going to have to update their technique: being more systematic, less arbitrary, less keen on the sound of their own voices. This might yield an improvement in the heat:light ratio, if nothing else.

Real democratic events. Appointments with the democratic process, made voluntarily by unfeasibly large numbers of willing electors. In the three debates British electoral politics got its Dr Who moment – millions gathered round the TV, popcorn and beer at the ready. And if these media milestones are going to become regular occurances (a bit like Harry Hill’s fights). And if the whole electoral process is going to pivot on these shiny floor democratic events and the frenzy of concurrent chatter on the soc nets, then the shabby, stage-managed electoral communications of old (the pressers, the back-of-the-bus briefings, the clunky daily ‘narratives’) will have to be modernised sharply.

Genuinely Influential. Can you think of an election media event from your lifetime that has moved the polls and changed perceptions so sharply? Jennifer’s ear? The Sheffield Rally? Chicken feed: irrelevant by comparison (although I guess I ought to wait for the result…). The liberals are in the race in a way that no one could possibly have predicted. All bets are off.

Panic inducing for the media. Even from the outside, the last-days-of-Saigon hysteria in the newsrooms and boardrooms of some of Britain’s national papers after that first debate was obvious. For the election to run out of control, to jump the rails in the way it did would have been hard to bear in a good year but with the print media’s relevance already tumbling faster than ever it must have been a cruel few days for editors. The lucky few journalists who could boast a handful of top liberals in their speed-dials jumped in prestige over night and decades of deliberately ignoring the party began to look less wise for the others.

I don’t want to overstate this. An election result and a week or two of elapsed time will put the debates in their proper context. They might turn out to have been a gimmick after all. I honestly can’t wait to find out.

Coming to tonight’s Common Platform debate?

First of all, it’s sold out, so if you’ve not got a confirmed seat I’m afraid you’ll just have to fight your way past three rows of braided Commissionaires (mostly veterans of the Desert Rats) at Broadcasting House to get to the Council Chamber (like that brilliant scene in Extras where Stephen Merchant tries to vault the security screens to get into a BBC building). If you do have a confirmed seat, on the other hand, please show up at Broadcasting House reception (Portland Place) for a prompt start at 19:00.

Second, the confirmed panel is as follows:

  • Tony Ageh, Controller, BBC Internet
  • Jem Stone, Portfolio Executive, Social Media for Future Media & Technology, BBC
  • James Cridland, Head of Future Media & Technology, BBC Audio & Music
  • Tom Loosemore, Ofcom and The Cabinet Office
  • Jon Gisby, Director of New Media, Channel 4
  • Azeem Azhar

Third, here’s the briefing I sent to panelists yesterday. For those of you who’ve been bugging Mike and myself for tickets, I really am sorry. Next time we’ll book Wembley Arena.

Fourth, if you’ve got a question you think really ought to be asked of this panel, drop me a line and I’ll try to squeeze it in.

Watch this space (and TechCrunch UK) for the outcome of what I expect will be a fascinating debate. I think Mike himself will be live blogging so TechCrunch might be a good place to start.

What’s the difference between the common platform and the web?

James Cherkoff wonders (in a comment) if my common platform isn’t really just… well… the web. It’s a good question because the web, of course, is the mother-and-father of all platforms, a place with such a richness of tools and outlets that it might seem as if it has no need of an additional layer like a common platform. But I think the answer to James’ question really is ‘no’.

The Common Platform (see, it’s already acquired a ‘The’ and Capital Letters like it’s a real thing!) is a designed overlay for the web, an elaboration. The sort of secondary functionality that all platforms sooner-or-later acquire. That’s not to say that it’s separate from or outside the web proper (not a walled garden or a locked-down proprietary thing). In fact it’s strength will lie in the fact that it is profoundly of the web.

Trying to be as ‘web-like’ as possible here I can imagine a common platform, at its simplest, as barely more than a commissioning model plus a tag-cloud. At its largest and most monolithic… It shouldn’t really be large or monolithic.

Expanding on this slightly, the Common Platform should be an organisational device plus some commissioning logic plus some kind of resource discovery gubbins and a wafer of UI to point all the different stakeholders at what they need. Bob’s Your Uncle. Job done. Public service media transformed. Next!

Another confirmed speaker for the Common Platform debate

Jon Gisby, who is Director of New Media at Channel 4, is now confirmed as a panelist in our debate next week about the BBC’s public service obligations—and beyond! (echoey sci-fi voice there). Jon is listed in my address book as ‘Managing Director, Freeserve’ which a) shows you how useful my address book is and b) suggests that I may well have tried to sell him (there are very few people of any stature in the UK web industry to whom I did not try to sell—but that’s another story).

A common platform?

What does the future of public service media look like? What comes after the current crop of public service entities, which are all essentially channels? Could it be a kind of platform?

We already have lots of platforms: Playstation, the web, Windows, Ubuntu, Series 60 mobiles. Systems that live low down in the stack, providing a bunch of services and data for applications that run on top. We’re familiar with how they work. They make life easier by eliminating duplication and they make possible all sorts of creative and useful work that wouldn’t happen otherwise.

So what I’m talking about is building a big, generous, accommodating public platform that runs code and community and content – making life easier for creators and communities in Britain. A kind of giant shared computer that exposes useful assets like public data, educational content, archives and library catalogues, health data and democratic and community tools… The whole range of useful and enabling content and services that comes from state providers like the BBC, the Ordnance Survey and the Public Records Office and also the good stuff that comes from the commercial and third sectors.

A national public service platform like this would be a public good, a freely accessible toolset, meeting place and notice-board. People would use it tell stories about all the big issues: the drama about free content and software, health service reform, access to public data, surveillance and health records, copyright, immigration, educational standards, content ratings for kids’ media, community access, capacity building for excluded groups and all the rest.

A platform like this would be open to all: individuals, businesses, clubs and schools. A rich and open toolset that people and groups could use to represent themselves, communicate their values, publish cool and useful content (and make money), but also to make mischief, dissent and pure entertainment—nothing worthy about this platform. Could something like this be a legitimate replacement or supplement for the industrial era public service outlets (the terrestrial TV channels, essentially) we now treasure but recognise are really struggling for relevance?

This is not a new idea. I first wrote about it over ten years ago. Lots of others have done so too. Ofcom even came up with a name for it (before they lost interest): the Public Service Publisher. Tessa Jowell, when she was Minister of Culture, advanced a similar idea with more of an economic edge: she called the BBC ‘venture capital for the UK’ in speeches like this one made all over the place. Jem Stone alerts me to the fact that senior managers at the Beeb seem to have picked the idea up again. Caroline Thompson, the most senior BBC Executive you’ve never heard of, was recently heard testing it on a Manchester audience (James Cherkoff points out that Peter Bazalgette’s Boggle is close to the Common Platform idea too).

I’m going to suggest that we call this new public service vehicle our Common Platform.

Next Wednesday evening I’m chairing a debate about the BBC’s role in the subtly different world after the Trust’s review of The debate’s a response to the fairly robust debate that’s been going on at since Mike Butcher put the boot into the Beeb after the report came out. We’ve got several important BBC people booked to participate plus Ofcom’s Tom Loosemore. Sadly the event is already a full house but watch this space for more news and a summary of the debate once we’ve had it.