As the frenzied election of 2010 reached full swing, it was heralded as a campaign taking shape unlike any other – or at least that was different from any national political contest in recent history. With the spectre of a ‘hung’ parliament and the raised profile of the third party and its ascendant leader, it certainly was distinct from recent election campaigns.
What really helped make the campaign unique was the role of media – but the new-style media coverage did not unfold quite the way some observers thought it would. Early in the election contest, I wrote about the fact that many in the political class were expecting this to be the UK’s first real digital election – in the mould of Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 when online communications played an unprecedented role.
Well that wasn’t quite how it worked out, was it? Instead, this was the election in which good old television played a huge role – maybe a bigger role that ever – as the TV debates dominated the campaign. So, while new media may be interactive and speak more directly to the individual, it took a back seat while an old mass media made a massive impact on the campaign’s trajectory as the old-fashioned big broadcast event created an excitement that set the election apart from any other in recent history.
For the Liberal Democrats, the television debates provided an unprecedented platform to showcase their leader and air their views – with Nick Clegg emerging as a serious player and legitimate contender for prime minister. But it was also another old medium that may have knocked him back down, as many of the mainstream newspapers went on the attack with a series of withering – and in most cases unfair – attacks on the LibDem leader who seemed bemused at the idea of going from the new Churchill to a Nazi sympathiser in the space of a week.
So while old media, particularly newspapers, have struggled to maintain their relevance and influence in the digital age, they certainly demonstrated that they can still be wheeled out take centre stage – to in fact provide centre stage – when Britons want to watch the big event unfold en masse before they gather round the water cooler. Even in the election’s compelling aftermath.