The Great Train Snobbery


How George Osborne’s train ticketing tomfoolery became first of all a social media firestorm, and then a media scrum before he had even stepped off of the train

So soon after plebgate (which, not long after the firestorm took hold finally claimed the Chief Whip) and hot on the heels of Cameron’s yah-boo-sucks to Chris Bryant, George Osborne’s alleged attempt to blag a first class seat with a standard class ticket hit the headlines. (I took this one from Twitter – Becca’s being the earliest tweet I can find)

And Twitter had a field day. It was Rachel Townsend of ITV who happened to be on the same train, live-tweeting the whole thing. What helped amplify the whole thing as far as ‘popular culture’ was concerned was a recent episode of “The Thick of it” where a politician jumped off from a train to escape from waiting journalists. Unfortunately for Osborne, the train he was on had no stops between the midlands and London Euston by the time Twitter picked up on the story. It did though, have enough time to allow journalists and protesters to turn up at Euston with something of a welcoming committee.

Cue Benny Hill style scenes of an embarrassed Chancellor allegedly being bundled out of a goods entrance to a waiting car – scenes that inevitably got picked up in an era where lots of people have smartphones.

In the grand scheme of things, stuff like this isn’t seismic stuff. But the cumulative impact of drip-drip-style tales such as these only go on to re-enforce a certain view of not just Tory ministers, but politicians in general. Remember this is at the same time as the ‘dual income MPs’ story gathers legs.

Impact of social and digital media

Twitter had a field day – if you want to find out more, have a look for the hashtag #GetGeorgeInStandard. I’m interested in both the speed of how this kicked off, and how people reacted in ‘offline’ world. All of this happened at such speed – both the reaction of journalists and protesters, and the reactions of Euston Station staff.

For anyone with a reasonable public profile, the moral of the story is that everyone is potentially a reporter and a photographer. While the quality of the reporting and the photographs may not be splendid, there are enough bloggers, tweeters and media organisations who are prepared to run with it – irrespective of quality, or dare I say it, factual correctness.

What helped in this case was that the source was a reasonably credible one – a journalist attached to a major news broadcaster. By that I mean that she is bound by rules and contractual requirements regarding her news reporting in a way others are not. Not only that, there are those that are familiar with her work and can vouch for her. If it were a random person not in any network where large numbers of people can vouch for them, people will inevitably look for a corroborating source.

Given the geographical nature of where the train was due to arrive – Central London, the race was on to get to the station. Journalists and students alike made their way – remembering that Euston is not far away from that hotbed of academic lefty activists the University of London Union. Hence within less than an hour, people were already gathering at Euston Station, tweeting their presence – and even pictures of all of them waiting for Osborne.

The staff at Euston too were not slow. As soon as it became clear that there was a welcoming party gathering to ambush the Chancellor, steps were taken to whisk Osborne through a back route into waiting transport. Those responsible for this will have had even less time to have set this up than those making their arrangements to get to Osborne. But despite the best efforts of station staff, pictures of Osborne both on the train and being smuggled out of Euston were taken and flew around the internet.

All-in-all, an amusing social media firestorm for a Friday afternoon in the rain, showing just how quickly people using social media can mobilise to target a politician (or anyone) when something happens. In this case, it was the alleged behaviour of a politician. It could easily be something a politician said in a keynote speech at a conference not pre-circulated, or something in a Q&A session.

Mini firestorms maketh a climate

The challenge all of this poses for politicians of all sides is that the ‘drip drip’ feed of all of these mini-firestorms will knit together to give a picture of the climate of your party – or those at the top of it. Senior politicians in general haven’t yet started engaging directly with social media users on a continuous basis. At the moment most are in broadcast mode. In my book, the best form of ‘insulation’ from these sorts of firestorms is – counterintuitively to embrace social media, warts and all. This is because people are more likely to get an understanding of what you are like as a human being. You also get direct responses for transgressions – whether by the party or by you individually. With such continual feedback, you are more likely to ‘amend’ your behaviour (to put it nicely). For example I’m not the same person as I was when I started using social and digital media. I have learnt so much – not just about other people but about myself too. Those systems of feedback for me are essential even if it’s for something as self-centred as self-improvement.

Whitehall and Westminster can be a bubble. Cameron and Osborne in their latest reshuffle have started iron-plating that bubble, surrounding themselves with trusted aides to shield them. Understandable why they would do this, as in the short term it gives a sense of re-enforcing your position. But in the long term, you lose the people who would otherwise be willing to give you the bad news and tell things as they are, rather than as you want them to be. This for me is one of the reasons why it’s important to engage with people who don’t agree with you. (You can still be polite about it though!) I trust people within my social media network to tell me when I’ve got things wrong or made the wrong call – as they do do. The onus is then on me to learn from it. (When it comes to criticism I am my own worst enemy).

How Osborne ended up in a first class carriage with only a standard class ticket I don’t know – and frankly don’t care. The social media lesson here though is that he or one of his aides been on social media and spotted this, they could have nipped it in the bud. One account set up as a fake which attempted to try and do just that might have succeeded. This was one set up a month or so ago in the name of one of the Chancellor’s advisers – only to be fisked soon after people picked up the tweets. But before the tweets were deleted, they basically said the whole thing was a non-story and that the aide concerned pressed the wrong button on the ticket machine for rail tickets. Actually, in the grand scheme of things it’s a plausible explanation. People in senior roles for large organisations rely on other people to do ticket bookings. That’s what a PA, secretary or private office is there for. Had a real aide on social media done exactly as the fake account above, the ensuing firestorm might have been a bit more muted. I say “might” because when it comes to passing blame to those below them, ministers have form. Or in Dennis Skinner’s words:

When posh boys are in trouble, they sack the servants

Not that anyone will get sacked for this one. As an incident it’s a storm in a teacup. But it certainly isn’t helping the Tories in their current political climate.


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