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Social policy and social media

Malcolm Dean recently argued that the decline in specialist social policy journalists would lead to ‘fewer awkward questions’ being asked of ministers.

His concern is that well-informed reporters will become an expensive extravagance as standards and budgets are dragged down by declining newspaper sales and advertising revenues. As a result, those in power will get away with pre-prepared ‘lines to take’ because nobody will be around to spot evasions and demand proper answers.

Dean’s credentials as a reporter and analyst of the media scene are impeccable. He founded and edited Guardian Society and this month sees the publication of his new book Democracy Under Attack: How the Media Distort Policy and Politics.

However, the growing role of social media in scrutinising social policy was missing from his article.

Twitter and other new forms of communication enable more and more people to access and disseminate previously privileged information, and then use that information to ask difficult questions. In other words, they’re empowering people to fulfil part of the role played by journalists.

New technologies are also bridging the gaps between decision-makers and people affected by, or simply interested in, their decisions. More and more ministers, council leaders and chief executives have an active social media presence.

Programme managers are increasingly blogging about progress and problems. Here is a post by Jess Steele of the community organiser programme, in which she responds to a piece on Newsnight, that titan of old media policy scrutiny, as well as subsequent comments and questions from Twitter users.

The title of the post – Transparency – couldn’t be more appropriate. When I started work in the civil service ten years ago it would have been unimaginable for a programme manager to respond within a day on the internet to questions raised by mere members of the public.

Today, within hours of policy announcements being made I can access grounded and well-considered online responses from professionals and service users in the relevant fields.

Tony Blair may regret passing the Freedom of Information Act, describing himself as a ‘naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop‘ for doing so. But the impact of the legislation, alongside the growth in new media and the managerial trend toward publishing data and producing league tables, has delivered a quiet revolution in transparency.

Clearly, social media isn’t perfect. One particular weakness demonstrates the wisdom of C. P. Scott’s dictum that ‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred’. Twitter, comment boards and other platforms enable anyone to shout their mouth off, without recourse to fact, evidence or even reasoned argument.

Instant and ignorant judgment is the dark side of everyone having their say about everything immediately. The comedian Richard Herring recently blogged that Twitter is becoming less like a rolling conversation and more like the rest of the internet, a place where the angry and anonymous ‘butt in and give their opinion, often of outrage, often when none is needed’.

Whereas anyone can shout their opinion, fewer people have the skills, resources and time to find, develop and properly interrogate information.

So there will always be a need for specialist social policy journalists. And if we value them, we must find ways to pay for them. But the role they play in future will be different, and I suspect the ones who prosper will recognise that there are lots more people out there using social media as they also try to ask ‘awkward questions’.

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Lee Shostak
Lee Shostak
12 years ago

As is often (not always) the case John is right. Let’s look at the way forward. First, it is increasingly likely that we have to pay for quality online content. However, today, there are few places where informed, disciplined debate on urban and social policy issues takes place. New Society, the fore-runner of the Guardian Society, was one such place. Second, the key to disciplined debate in our online world is the quality and the rigour of the mediator. Yes, Malcolm Dean does perform that role from time to time. Generally, New Start does not. The UK social policy community needs a forum where facts are sacred and debate is balanced. Where is it? Who will run it? Will we pay?

neil Mcinroy
neil Mcinroy
12 years ago

Fine blog. I think Lee’s comments miss the point. Social media is about creating a diversity and plurality, where the reader is an active player not a passive reader. We do need quality writers/journalists, who interpret, but we do not need monolithic big players who mistake heft for facts and reputation as quality. Also on ‘balance’. Surely, this is about the reader. I for one, am fed up with media ownership models which impinge on impartiality and so called ‘facts’. On who will pay? Arguably it was never that easy. Even the big players subsidised this work. Also, sometimes we need to do things which might not pay, but are just a good thing to do!

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