The media are blamed for creating a society awash with information but devoid of knowledge. Last November, in a foretaste of the election campaign, politicians showed that they must share the blame. Jane Robins reports on the arrival of digital politicsby Jane Robins / May 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
On 20th November 1996 British politics changed. It went digital. On that day, computers and databases were mobilised in a new precision warfare. Instead of a face-to-face battle of ideologies, where victory goes to the party which convinces voters that its views are the right ones, the new politics is a hit-and-run guerrilla warfare where facts serve as bullets and the victor is the party which gets more of its intended message into the public domain.
This is the politics of manoeuvre and performance. The political parties bombard the media with more facts than they can handle, and then put up their spokesmen at press conferences and on television to drive home a simple slogan or message.
The first act in the new drama opened on 19th November, in the homely office of Danny Finkelstein, head of research at Conservative central office. Finkelstein is a friendly, cerebral man whose office wall is covered in American campaign badges. He is a leading member of the team, determined to launch the first blast of the Tory election campaign -a detailed analysis of 89 Labour spending “pledges”-each sourced to a Labour MP or Labour document. The pledges, according to central office, would amount to ?30 billion in extra public spending, or an additional ?1,200 a year on the tax bill of the average household.
Finkelstein’s task is to “manage the message”-to get it accepted by the media and, eventually, by the electorate on election day. The first move was to leak the bare bones of the story to George Jones, the political editor of the Daily Telegraph, and to BBC’s Newsnight. When a story is “dynamite” you can leak it to one newspaper knowing it will still be the headline in all the others the following day. It gets two hits. There was a second reason for the leak. The strategists believe that “these days in politics you need to make things happen before they happen”-that way you can also brief on the reaction. It is all a matter of control.
Around the corner, at Millbank Tower, Labour was bracing itself. Brian Wilson MP, designated “head of rebuttal,” knew that the Tory document was coming, but did not know exactly what it contained. His mission was to destroy the message. In 1992 the Tories’ “tax bombshell” campaign had killed Labour’s chances of victory. But much has changed. Now Labour has computers; it…