Using video to make local politics and democracy more accessible


Some thoughts on using digital video/filming events to bring politicians closer to the people

Over the past few weeks I’ve filmed a number of talks, speeches presentations and events. This is all part of what I can only describe as a ‘personal calling’ to revitalise local democracy and community action in my home town. Be the change – Cambridge is part of that, as was standing for election under Puffles’ name/brand in May 2014 in Cambridge.

Recording a press conference

Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party of England and Wales has been in Cambridge on a number of occasions recently. On 7 October the Green Party unveiled Dr Rupert Read as their prospective parliamentary candidate for Cambridge at a press conference at Kings College. You can see Dr Read’s speech below.

Cambridge 105FM also interviewed Dr Read and Natalie Bennett – listen to the podcast here. Julian Clover who did the radio interview was one of the journalists at the press conference – as was Jon Vale, the new local government correspondent of the Cambridge News. We were also joined by a BBC Cambridgeshire camera crew. There were also a number of students and academics, along with local party activists – about 25 of us in total. As with the mainstream media, it’s not the reporters that decide what gets published, but the editors. Yet without recorded media coverage, you don’t get to hear the speaker in their own words.

Given the nature of the event, and given my community reporting role, I felt a sort of obligation to ask questions when the floor was opened up. The sort of questions I go for are ones that are specific to Cambridge – in particular my neighbourhoods, and ones that can apply to all political parties. Unless I want to nail down a specific commitment, I tend to go for softer, more open questions that allow the respondent to ‘think aloud’. This avoids ‘loaded question vs line-to-take-tennis’.

Number of plays online vs number of people attending

For the two videos that I uploaded from that press conference, there were over 80 ‘plays’ (and even more uploads) within the first 48 hours of the videos being uploaded. In the grand scheme of things, 80 isn’t that many. But if it’s depth rather than breadth you’re looking for, that can be the difference between a couple of individuals becoming active as a result of becoming informed/inspired as a result of viewing the footage. Given how closely contested Cambridge will be in 2015…exactly.

Actually, having local digital video content for student political societies matters – especially at the start of a new academic year

Earlier on I was at two events – one with Cambridge Young Greens, followed by another with Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats. In August I did some filming for the latter, and popped into their event at Kings (ironically in the same room that The Greens had had their press conference in some 56 hours earlier) to give them the video files.

Earlier this week was the big annual freshers’ fair. That’s thousands of students signing up to every other society under the sun, people signing up for email lists, liking Facebook pages and following Twitter accounts. With digital video footage, you get human voices & faces of those that run the societies diversifying content. With the Lib Dem video, I filmed a series of interviews with local and visiting student activists, asking them what got them interested in politics. Despite the over-sensitive internal microphone, I managed to get it into a state where the interviewees could be heard. As it was their event, it’s their call as to whether it gets published or not. But to give you a feel of the concept, it was very similar to this series of clips I filmed at a recent climate vigil in Cambridge.

In the above video, there are people from across Cambridge’s communities. One of the people featured in that video has known me since I was a child. Others featured in that video were not even born at that time. You also had locals as well as people from other parts of the world. In the case of local student parties, would you want some of your members to feature in short digital video clips like that? In particular ones where perhaps you can break some negative stereotypes about either what Cambridge is like, what your party is like or even what politics is like?

“What about Labour and the Tories?”

Having met members of Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats, Cambridge Young Greens and Cambridge Universities Labour Club, they’ve all been interesting, bright and personable. I’ve not been to any of the Cambridge University Conservative Association events as they only set up their Facebook page in June 2014 so haven’t been in touch yet – though they have a number of very interesting speakers in Cambridge this autumn. (See their term card here). Both former Attorney General Dominic Grieve MP and Universities Minister Dr Greg Clark MP are worth going along to hear, for anyone interested in public administration & policy-making – not just party politics.  CUSU’s UKIP student society at the time of posting seems dormant.

“Will digital video have an impact?”

That depends on what the parties choose to do with the footage. For example Cambridge Young Greens have 179 likes on Facebook (as of 9 Oct 2014) while Cambridge Liberal Democrats (whose page has been around for longer) has 606 likes. Cambridge Universities Labour Club has 608 likes, the Cambridge University Conservative Association has 153 likes. For future digital videos it’ll be interesting to track how many plays came through from these pages – assuming admins choose to post links themselves. Ditto with individual Twitter accounts – which are slightly different in that I find it’s the personal rather than the group party accounts that are more active & have higher followings.

In terms of emotional impact and mobilising people for action, digital video for me does three things.

Familiarisation with other people

The first is that it can help familiarise viewers with people who run the societies and who are active in it. This can help answer the question of: “Are these the sort of people who not only share my values but are the sort of people I want to spend time with?”

Not being left out if you miss an event

The second one is on keeping people informed – especially where they have to miss an event they would otherwise have gone to. This is critical for those people with accessibility issues. I’m not just thinking about people who use wheelchairs or mobility scooters. I’m also thinking about people who, like myself are dependent on public transport, or perhaps those who have childcare/caring responsibilities.

A resource you can come back to

If you’re out and about campaigning, or if someone asks detailed questions on a party policy online, it might be that a digital video of an event has a speaker that comprehensively answers the question for you. One of the advantages of being in a political party is that you can rely on someone else’s expertise to deal with those detailed policy questions you don’t know the answer to.

“How do you persuade people from different parties to let you film or live-tweet from their events?”

Part of it is an issue of trust. Am I a secret renegade spying on one party for another? No. If I was, I’d have been found out by now. Given that I’ve worked in policy teams in the civil service for ministers of all of the three main parties in my time inside the system, that inevitably comes with its own responsibilities on what information you handled in your day-to-day duties. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve stood as an independent candidate in a public election – under my Twitter avatar Puffles.

Puffles prepares to cross-examine candidates for the European Parliament Elections for the East of England region.
Puffles prepares to cross-examine candidates for the European Parliament Elections for the East of England region.

It’s one thing to say you’re not a member of any political party, but quite another to stand as an independent candidate against all of the other parties. (Basically you get kicked out of political parties if you stand against them in elections – e.g. if you don’t get selected as a candidate in your desired seat and decide to stand anyway independently).

Think also about both the free publicity & free service, and the ability to keep control of it. With the events that I’ve filmed at, I’ve said to the organiser/host that they are in control. If they want me to stop filming at any point, that’s their right. Ditto with making footage public. It’s their call. Some people are happy for it to be public, others prefer to have footage password-protected so only friends can see. Others prefer not to be filmed at all. That’s fine with me.

A snipped on quality of footage

It was the experience of filming the Liberal Youth event in August that persuaded me to get a professional external microphone for my new camcorder – which itself is at what they call the ‘prosumer end’ of the market. This is all part of me learning about how use digital video in a manner beyond the ‘home video style’ content. A standard camcorder or smartphone would have really struggled with the climate vigil – both lighting and audio.

It isn’t a case of ‘shut up and film’ – as I’m finding out. A couple of the regular venues that host meetings or events are not the easiest to film in when it comes to lighting or acoustics. Unfortunately given the perilous state of funding of community venues in particular, I can’t see many of them being in a position where they can pay for a refurbishment that would make them ideal for filming in. With public events you’ve also got to consider the audience in the room. It might be nice to have a camera close and at eye-level with the speaker, but that often blocks the view of the audience in the room. You’re then left with a choice of a worm’s eye view (which is seldom flattering) and a reasonably clear voice, or reasonably good visuals but a less clear voice.

Hence why functioning microphones and speakers in AV-equipped rooms are your friends!


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