How might local political parties work with the new generation of community reporters?


Reporting back on the Queen Edith ward hustings at Homerton College, Cambridge.

I’ve uploaded an album of videos from the Queen Edith’s ward by-election hustings held at Homerton College on 12 November 2014.

That’s quite a lot of videos for a relatively small event. But given the rare occurrence of hustings in Cambridge, this was a very useful experience for all concerned. Although I have a direct interest in the outcome of this by-election (my school is in the ward), I don’t have a vote as I live in the neighbouring ward of Coleridge. (This is where Puffles stood in May 2014). Hence I’m not going to pass comment on the performance of the candidates, let alone who I would vote for if given the choice. I’ll leave it to fellow independent blogger Chris Rand to do so here.

Me interviewing Joel Chalfen of Cambridge Green Party. Pic, Chris Rand.
Me interviewing Joel Chalfen of Cambridge Green Party. Pic, Chris Rand.

Positive feedback from local party activists

The tweets below are two examples

Content-wise, the videos are unedited. I’ve not clipped speeches or pulled out soundbites – which can all-too-easily be taken out of context. It allows representatives from all parties to invite people to view the speeches in full before responding in detail.

Within the first 12 hours of the videos going up, the opening speeches alone had nearly 70 views between them. Given the audience, it’s likely that most of those people viewing the videos would not have been at the hustings. For me, it doesn’t matter too much at this stage on whether the viewers are voters. It may well be that most of the viewers are party activists and their supporters. What matters to me is I’m demonstrating to audiences what can be achieved with digital video.

Reviewing their own performances

It’s one of the most excruciating experiences to go through – reviewing your own performance on film. But if you’re making public speeches or going to be appearing in future public debates, reviewing your performance is essential. For Joel and Rahima, this was their first public debate.

****Being cross-examined on your beliefs and political views is a very difficult experience****

Before you start judging the four candidates, ask yourself how you would fare faced with an audience and a bloke with a camera. It takes a huge amount of courage to face your neighbourhood to stand up and be counted. Even more so if you have lived in that neighbourhood for years. In the current climate you inevitably run the risk of criticism, ridicule and even hatred. I got all three standing as Puffles in May 2014. It explains why I finally snapped at a hustings in May 2014 for the European elections – telling one candidate to

“Take your billboards of hate and get out of my beautiful city!”

It’s not pleasant. Also, there will be some things that will attract a disproportionate amount of all three – think of all the ‘isms. Again, in the current climate, consider what someone like Rahima, the Labour candidate would have to overcome in terms of fears. Gender, ethnicity and faith. On Tuesday I commented to people that the news agenda on violence against women seemed to be absolutely unrelenting – even I as a man felt absolutely bludgeoned by the end of the evening.

This perhaps gives an insight into my style of interviewing and filming of local political events. I’m not in the business of stirring up hate and controversy. There’s too much of it already. If you go in on the attack, your interview subjects close in and become defensive. You then end up with the ‘lines to take’ and the whole thing is a waste of space. Ask loaded questions on ‘tell us how wonderful your policy is on XYZ’ at the same time lacks the credibility to get under the skin of the issues.

Bear in mind most viewers will know very little about the people I’m interviewing – and may well not have met them

This matters because at a local level, not many of us get the chance to meet the people we vote for. Therefore having *something* on video that allows politicians and political activists to introduce themselves on a relatively neutral playing field can help. Hence in my early interviews I’ve not gone for the policy questions, but the human experiences – as this interview with Cllrs Heidi Allen and Seb Kindersley show.

Heidi and Seb are the prospective parliamentary candidates in South Cambridgeshire for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats respectively. It’s a near certainty that one of these two will replace Andrew Lansley MP after the general election. (Lansley got about 27,000 votes and Kindersley 20,000 in the 2010 General Election). Normally you’d expect two opposing candidates to be tearing strips out of each other, but not at this one.

“Why so?”

I told them in advance the sort of interview it would be, and I briefed them on the questions I would be asking.

“Why did you do that? Doesn’t that defeat the point of interviewing?”

If you’re interviewing to catch people out, perhaps. But that’s not my aim. My aim is for them to give open and informed answers, and to be relaxed in front of camera. You don’t get that with mainstream soundbite-TV-news. Therefore the public ends up with a very partial view of politicians. Having worked with ministers of all three parties, I found out that the image many have in the public eye is very different to what they are really like off camera. Generally the ones who are not the top media performers are the ones that are easier to work with and/or more personable face-to-face. Hence I try to go for a more conversational approach than one where I have a list of hostile questions.

Trust across the parties

Across the parties, there is a broad level of trust between me and their politicians & activists. That doesn’t mean I’ll be uncritical of their actions and policies, nor does it mean I’m an unpaid propaganda arm for each of them. They all know my main agenda is getting more people interested and involved in local democracy. There happens to be a digital media gap in Cambridge which I’m filling.

Out of all the parties, The Green Party in Cambridge is the one most proactive in inviting me to film speeches and events. That said, I’ve filmed for both Cambridge Labour Party and Cambridge Liberal Democrats. I’m yet to film for the Conservatives, but the offer is there. The next step for all of them – in particular after the Queen Edith’s hustings is to think about what they would like to do with all of this footage. None of the parties have yet downloaded or embedded any of the videos onto their local websites – which is a shame. Personally I believe having footage of local party figures speaking on camera in different settings brings out the ‘human beings’ in politicians – and helps nail some of the negative stereotypes. Also, the diversity of footage makes it more difficult to stage manage – something that the public can see through very quickly.

“One area for improvement for all of the candidates from last night?”

It was their response to this question on their future vision for Queen Edith’s ward:

What I’d have liked to have seen were very clear statements that cover this:

“How will our ward be different as a result of ***you*** (rather than anyone else) being a councillor by the time you are next up for election?”

For example in my case in May 2014, my vision was – and still is – one where young people not only have their say on the future of the city, but are able to influence it. How? Not just by doing social media, but changing our systems so that we have planned regular outreach events and activities that get their input, and to have a city-wide citizenship program as children and young people progress through school. The intended result? More people informed about local democracy and more people taking a detailed interest in the parts of local democracy that they feel most passionately about – leading to greater voter turnout too.

“Anything on improving communications and speeches?”

Shorter, sharper responses. It’s not the long, rambling responses that will capture people’s imagination. A clear, concise, informed and passionate answer to the question/problem posed is what I think they need to focus on. On top of that, as we didn’t have microphones in the room, stand up when speaking. It allows you to project your voice – and makes it easier for anyone recording to pick up the audio.


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