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Social Networking and Political Campaigning – what to expect from Theresa May’s performance on Twitter.

My recent publication Me, You, AND Us: Constructing Political Persona on Social Networks during the 2015 UK General Election, examined the Twitter and Facebook presence the seven leading political parties. Based on this, I want to suggest a number of things we should look for in the coming days in terms of the transformation of social media performances and construction of persona on Twitter specifically.

In the next week, I’ll focus on the leader’s of each party in turn and suggest how their performances will be shaped (or not) by those of the leaders who fought the last campaign. Given she’s already off to a head start as the only leader who knew an election was coming, let’s start with Theresa May.

The short campaign period before a General Election (which will start officially on May 1st) can be understood as a period of heightened activity for not only social media but also in terms of display of the relationships with mainstream- and particularly news – media. In this instance, given the snap call, we should extend that period of activity from now until voting day.

MAY: Social Media Page immediately following announcement of GE 2017 (11.30am, Tuesday, April 17)

Theresa May’s social media presence is about to extend considerably, with a significantly higher number of posts, using a broader range of production tools. She has much ground to gain on Cameron in terms of followers with just 281,ooo today compared to his 948,632 at the beginning of the 2015 short campaign and the Conservative campaigning team will focus on raising her profile.

Given this reduced presence  – and following the pattern shown by political leaders with fewer followers at the last GE – her followers should increase significantly by percentage in a relatively short period of time. An excellent showing would be the 30% lift Nicola Sturgeon enjoyed during the short campaign. Increasing by just 5.8% as Cameron could be considered a poor show, and will give us an indication of whether her message is resonating with Twitter users.

As the Conservative campaigning team kicks into gear, we should expect to see around the same levels of performance using the same ranges of technologies – with video pieces to camera and professionally taken pictures from the campaign trail – tweeted and posted to Facebook using clear production and dissemination patterns across each campaigning day.


TWITTER PATTERN: David Cameron during the short campaign 2015.


The pattern of Cameron’s performance, gives us a guide of what we might expect. Conservative HQ consider the last campaign a success and certainly it worked well in terms of shifting news agendas and keeping them on course during the campaign.

Cameron’s social media presence dominated discourse largely due to the coverage of it in mainstream media. The social media team are likely to keep the same framework for levels and times of tweets, framing them in relation to the campaign trail.

CAMERON’S DISCOURSE: text cloud of Tweets during the 2015 short campaign.


However, there will be some differences. As the text cloud of all of Cameron’s tweets during the short campaign demonstrates, his social media persona was placed as a “Me” to “You” conversation linked significantly around the “family”. His own family was a part of that conversation, linking him as a family man to the prosperity and security of the nation.

Without children to base discourse around, May’s performance will be around the values of “ordinary” people. This can already be seen on her Twitter landscape which carries the slogan, “A Country Which Works for Everyone“.

Rather than as a “mother”, her team may also construct her persona performance around discourses of “daughter” and “wife” as a means to attempt to create familial bonds with the electorate which is a key component of successful social media performance.

There will also be a stark choice given to voters, building from the success of the Conservative campaign in undermining Miliband last election. She will ask voters to choose between her stable hand for negotiating Brexit or “chaos” with Corbyn. We should expect a tweet along these lines within the next few days as it will be a key talking point throughout the election campaign.




Tomorrow, I will consider what Corbyn might learn from Miliband’s social media persona construction during the short campaign – and contemplate whether his team has the capabilities, manpower or will to do what is necessary on social media to shift the news agenda to his terms.

How can media academics fight the rise of the right?

Menow2 @bethanyusher

AT the international Celebrity Studies Journal conference in Amsterdam Brexit dominated  conversations with British colleagues as we struggled to come to terms with the rise and increased visibility of the far-right at home.

Most delegates were shocked. “No one on my Facebook on Twitter timeline was voting out”, they said, “I never see any of the stuff about immigration. I honestly vote it would be a Remain landslide.”

The insinuation was clear. The people who voted out are simply not who we, in the Ivory Towers of academia, would associate.

This has been very different to my own experience over the past few years, where I’ve watched far-right rhetoric about immigrants increase on the Facebook pages of people I know.

Shortly after Brexit I wrote about the rise of the right in my hometown Sunderland – the first place to announce for Brexit.

I argued that when Labour stopped speaking for the people of the post-industrial North and seized the neo-liberal middle ground, they left a vacuum into which stepped first the BNP and later UKIP.

They poured poison into a people who felt abandoned and were looking for someone to blame for social and economic insecurity.

As I was due to present an analysis of party leader’s social network accounts during 2015 GE election campaign, I decided to refocus the work to try and make some sense of the Brexit vote, with particular focus on Farage’s successful use of Facebook.

My research explores how the conventions of the news industry – alongside the techniques of online ‘micro celebrities’ and celebrity marketing – have influenced digital electioneering.

Farage and the UKIP team were particularly adept at adapting familiar cultural discourses and images for their own ends, such as this play on the famous ‘Labour Isn’t working’ poster.



On Facebook, Farage won the day, with more people ‘talking about him’ and ‘liking’ his page than Labour, The Liberal Democrats, the SNP and The Green Party combined.

His church, like Facebook users, was broad.  Young and old, from the Northern unemployed to Middle Englanders, shared his messages about the dangers of immigration and the abandonment of ordinary people by the establishment.

Many of their methods, for any one who studies journalism, are all too familiar. In the late 1970s, Stuart Hall discussed attacks on young black Britons by the National Front in 1975 as a direct result of tabloid newspaper’s portrayal of them as muggers and benefit “scroungers”. He concluded that behind the attacks were white fears about the decline of Britain as an economic power and the ‘othering’ of groups by the press.

The similarities between this kind of news discourse and the way Farage and other right-wing groups such as Britain First construct their own content are clear. But rather than it being engaged with once and then cast aside, like a newspaper, it has tentacles which grow as it is shared again and again.

Often framed as a conversation between ‘Me’ and”You’ against the dangerous ‘them’, content created for social media can suddenly reappear after several weeks or months, finding new currency on new timelines.

And the popularity of the far-right on the site can not be ignored. Britain First, Farage and the UKIP’s Facebook pages boast a combined total of more than 2.7 million ‘likes’ – a million more than Cameron and the Conservatives. Farage’s post-brexit video alone racked up 1.45m views in three weeks.

So, the question becomes, what is our role, as educators and researchers, in challenging this rhetoric?

I’d argue that it is a significant –  and it is time for us to focus.

First, we need to understand it better and to do so we must emerge from our social media echo chambers and actively engage with people whose views we might find unpalatable. The limited audience and lofty language of media research means that those who it could benefit most, rarely engage with it.

Secondly, and for post 1992 institutions particularly, we must do more to ensure that young working class people are both politicised and educated during their time with us.

The Miners’ Halls and picket lines of my childhood – where I was politically educated – are gone. Surely we are better placed than the far-right to try and fill these kinds of spaces? I am often surprised that there is so little political debate or demonstration on our campus and know I should do more to help instigate it.

Our students need to understand how both neo-liberal and far right ideologies are constructed, maintained and impact on them. When they do it can be a fulfilling experience for them. On the morning after Brexit I watched with pride as one graduate picked apart Nigel Farage’s statement using ideas discussed in seminars.

She also told a friend who complained that her Facebook was “too political” “that she should “look up Habermas so they could understand was social media was really all about.”

These kinds of discussions on social networks are important because they too can be shared, giving our teaching extended life.

Across England, voting Brexit meant many working class people felt they have a voice and their anger has been focused directly on people they perceive as different.

It’s up to professions like ours to convince them there is another way for them to feel politically empowered. Surely we are capable of being better communicators than the likes of Nigel Farage and Britain First? We have the skills to unpick this rhetoric and we must work harder to do so.

The right are on the rise and we have an important role in the fight back.




The Labour Party may have to take some blame for the referendum result – but it’s not all Corbyn’s fault.

This week my hometown Sunderland achieved world wide infamy when it became the first area to vote ‘Leave’  – and by a much larger margin than expected.

The Parliamentary Labour Party are imploding again and blaming Jeremy Corbyn for the result at the hands of many of their voters.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 16: Jeremy Corbyn poses for a portrait on July 16, 2015 in London, England. Jeremy Bernard Corbyn is a British Labour Party politician and has been a member of Parliament for Islington North since 1983. He is currently a contender for the position as leader of the Labour Party. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

HOPE UNFULFILLED: Motion of No Confidence in Corbyn. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

But while the referendum result may be partially Labour’s fault, it is not just Corbyn who is to blame.

This is the culmination of a 20-year period during which Labour has all but abandoned any attempt to speak for, or to, the working class communities of the North.

I was born into the kind of family who didn’t question that the party acted in our best interests.I called Neil Kinnock and Arthur Skargill, ‘Uncles’ as a child and was raised to believe the party would fight for us forever.

I’ve written before about how difficult life was as a child living in Sunderland during the Thatcher years while her Government ripped apart my community.

It felt like a war. I couldn’t understand why I, from a Northern single parent family, was so hated. It may be akin to the way the children of immigrants feel today.

My first memories are of picket lines that occasionally turned into pitch battles, of bailiffs turning up to take neighbours’ TVs and collecting food for miner’s families, even though we had very little ourselves.

Poverty can be undignified, but we tried to find to retain our humanity within it.

That was largely due to the fact that through it all, we always believed that The Labour Party was fighting for us.

We listened to powerful men in Miner’s Halls and on picket lines, preaching that our time would come, as long as we stood together.

As we moved from rented home to rented home, waiting on the now endless council list, we always believed a better day was on the horizon.

And just after my 17th birthday, we all thought it had arrived. My Mam held me and wept on the day Tony Blair swept to power. I’m still appreciative of some of what his Government achieved. It enabled me to scramble my way out of poverty and into a profession.


A NEW DAWN: Believing the fight was over.

But while I escaped poverty, for many of the people I grew up with, the promises were unfulfilled.

New Labour turned its attention to the interests of the city and forgot the important job of politicising the working classes.

When the Miner’s Halls closed and shipbuilding foreman disappeared, The Labour Party did not fill the political and social gap left behind. They abandoned us and talked instead to big business and for the South.

Into the vacuum stepped first the BNP and then Farage’s UKIP, pouring poison into the ears of the people who felt like the Tory Government had spent 25 years attacking them.

The Tories crippled us and then Labour abandoned us.

People in post-industrial communities felt like they weren’t seen as good enough to be part of the Labour movement. But far-right parties convinced them they were good enough for theirs and set about convincing them that the fight was with other working class people who sounded and looked different.

This week, following the Brexit vote, the grandchildren of the skilled Labour men of the lost North feel empowered for the first time in two generations.

I just feel scared. The EU was a safety net for communities like mine and now it’s gone. Maybe if you’ve grown up in poverty you never feel truly safe, but it’s a long time since I’ve felt as insecure as I do today.

I feel lost between two worlds, both of which I’m furious with.

I’m angry at my childhood community and friends, many of whom voted ‘Leave’ and are celebrating something which I know will make their lives harder.

And I’m angry with The Labour Party, because it helped cause this. Not because Corbyn didn’t speak loud enough, but because for too long it hasn’t spoken to these communities at all.


GIVE THEM HOMES AND WORK: The forgotten Labour promise.

So tonight I send this heartfelt message to the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Even now you’re too busy cannibalising yourself to acknowledge what abandoning your heartlands caused. If you do not listen, you run the risk of losing these seats to UKIP at the next election and perhaps forever.

Wake up and quickly. Has the loss of Scotland taught you nothing? The North of England is at risk from an entirely different kind of nationalistic party.

Perhaps it is time to acknowledge Corbyn is not the person to unify the left. I believe if he thought there was a better candidate to speak for the poorest in our society, he was step aside without this public bloodletting. Finding that person is now the job of you all.

Unification under the banner of the left must happen and you must find a way to communicate again with and for those most disenfranchised by unfettered capitalism.

The far-right are on the rise. Please win back the hearts and minds of the people you were set up to fight for.

Dear Labour, please return to us before it is too late.


A NEW, NEW DAWN: Return to us, Labour Party.


Broadening the field – how to get more working class kids into journalism

SEVEN years ago I left industry to lead a newly founded journalism course at Teesside University which was managing to keep fewer than half those recruited.

Today that course reached the top ten of The Guardian League tables for journalism.

This matters not only because it is a badge of honour (I’m not going to pretend I’m not thrilled), but because of the opportunity courses like this  offer to young people often excluded from media jobs due to their socio-economic background.

Some of them come from the kind of places that Benefits Street was recently filmed and others from as far afield as London.

The vast majority are state educated and often the biggest barrier we have to overcome is building their confidence. We work on interview and presentation skills a lot.

LEAGUE TABLES: Our core course is Multimedia Journalism with two new programmes this year

LEAGUE TABLES: Our core course is Multimedia Journalism with two new programmes this year

They leave us as digital media professionals who can work across all platforms. And then get jobs – increasingly globally.

Last year we got 60 per cent of graduates into media related jobs within six months, in an area with one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in the country.

We’ve had grads born and bred in ‘Boro’ working in Australia, America and France.

These young people should be celebrated. Instead there is still snobbery from huge sections of industry regarding courses like ours and whether these graduates are fit for purpose.

A couple of years ago I watched an episode of Celebrity Mastermind which featured Football Focus presenter Dan Walker , who recalled some advice he was given by Des Lynam as a child, in regards to how to become a BBC football journalist.

“He told me to get a good undergraduate degree – not in media, and then do a post-graduate journalism qualification.” Queue nods of agreement from John Humphreys.

This followed a lunch with a friend and BBC correspondent  who said that it was still ‘difficult’ for graduates with first degrees in journalism to get jobs in the organisation.

“We prefer them to have a proper academic degree first,” she said. “And then they should train on the job while doing a post-grad qualification.”

Students working in Teesside University’s news studio

And with that slams the door on working class young people up and down the country. An unfunded post-grad qualification, following an already expensive undergrad degree, is a luxury many can’t afford.

I’m not having a pop at traditional ‘academic degree at a Redbrick/20-week postgraduate course’ route in to journalism just because I lead an undergraduate programme. It’s the way I – and the majority of my colleagues over the years – trained.

But I was also lucky. A kindly editor at my local newspaper gave me some paid shifts to cover the tuition fees of my post-grad course after I graduated. If he hadn’t – like many of the students we teach at Teesside – I would not have been able to afford another course after university to open the magic door to industry. Our courses are NCTJ accredited so students get their professional qualifications as part of their degree programme.

These views also show little understanding of the level and variety of technical and practical skills needed by young reporters attempting to break in to the industry today.

Our students learn how record and edit video and audio for both broadcast and online. They come up with concepts for original news websites, then monetize them; then build them.

They launch their own online publications and come up with interesting and dynamic social media strategies; design and sub-edit news pages; use Photoshop to create interesting and dynamic story illustration; come up with short and long-term policies for search media optimisation; organise participatory campaigns with audience; they news-gather to produce  a website, newspaper, and news programmes for TV and radio for campus.

On top of this they do their professional exams, including learning shorthand to 100 words a minute. They are in classes up to 20 hours per week. It’s great value for money for them and puts the six hours of week lectures I did for my ‘proper academic degree’ to shame.

Finally, this snobbery around undergraduate programmes works on an assumption that academic and practical learning are separate entities.

It infers the training of journalists is primarily about process and that somehow a first degree in an academic subject will automatically foster critical thinking in the workplace.

But how can you teach process and practice without teaching students the cultural significance of their industry and things like how ownership, race, class and gender influence the news agenda?

Studying at university enables them to understand the societal obligations and identify when their publications are not fulfilling them. As Chris Paterson and David Domingo argue in the second volume of Making Online News:

“Journalists to not exist in a vacuum, and a young journalist with little concept of journalistic obligation, of the social context of the field, and of the possibilities, limitations and evolution of the latest forms of journalistic practice, may well do society, and the news organisation, more harm than good.”

In these times of increased media scrutiny  one of the greatest opportunities afforded by longer training courses is space to foster informed ethical practitioners who have a deep understanding of the modern media landscape, how we’ve got here and how we can make it better.

It takes an entire generation of well-trained and dynamic young people to transform the working practices of an industry. For me, that’s what training over three years rather than cramming it in to 20 weeks gives us the opportunity to do.

While – limitations to kids from lower socio-economic backgrounds aside – I have no issue with the traditional red-brick/post grad qualification route into journalism, I am under no illusions that I entered the industry better qualified to work in it than the graduates leaving our undergraduate degree.

I say to our students is that if they engage fully with the opportunities on offer, they can leave the institution with the same level of training and experience I had post my senior journalism qualification which I sat after 18 months in industry.

This is topped by a broad knowledge base of how the industry operates and how it could be improved, which I didn’t really get until I entered the world of academia. Few journalists I know really have the time to investigate how the industry could improve not only in a storytelling sense but also ethically.

Despite this there are still people in industry who wouldn’t even interview them, based on an antiquated sense of how journalists should be trained, which increasingly seems rooted in class snobbery.

It’s time they woke up.

After the sentence…..

IN mitigation before today’s sentencing, Andy Coulson, former Chief Reporter Neville Thurlbeck and their colleagues James Weatherup and Greg Miskew publicly admitted phone hacking for the first time.

They said they did it simply because they thought it was allowed.

This was understandable because it was in The Press Complaints Commission code of conduct which – incredibly – still says there is a public interest defence for intercepting telecommunications.

It was repeated in McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists and the News of the World staff handbook which made adhering to the Code of Practice a professional responsibility. Thurlbeck, while claiming there was a public interest defence for the hacking he commissioned, submitted the handbook as mitigation.

They were also told it was okay by media lawyers, who use the public interest as a defence for all kinds of crimes committed by journalists as part of their work. It’s for that reason that buying a stolen disc containing expense details of politicians, for example, did not lead to prosecution.

Of course there really is no public interest defence for the routine hacking of celebrities’ phone messages. What should have been used rarely for stories of significance became a fishing exercise. Their mitigation doesn’t stand up when considering the speculative hacking of Glenn Mulcaire.

Equally, there can be no excuse for listening to the voicemail of someone who has died or their family, although it could be argued attempting to find a missing child is in the public interest.

Given one news editor would regularly demand the numbers of my own contacts – some of whom had also lost loved ones – I find the hacking of the phones of murder victims and their families particularly troubling.

But, while I was never in a position where I would have considered it, I wonder whether for all journalists there should be times when listening to phone messages would be a justified breach of the law?

If a reporter had finally been able to stand up the endless accusations about Jimmy Savile, or evidence of a paedophile ring at the heart of Government, would the public see it as in their interest? What about if it could prove a Prime Minister had knowingly employed a criminal or had lied about reasons for entering a war? Would it be justified then?

Perhaps this police investigation and public inquiry has irrevocably changed the industry and popular support for journalists and so the answer is a resounding “No”. And maybe some of that is for the good. But I do wonder whether how many reporters are now unwilling to take any risks in case they end up in The Clink.

I also wonder whether, if it happened during this current chilly climate, the stolen Expenses’ disc would result in the arrests of both the journalists who bought it and the public officials who sold it.

Before the hacking scandal, when I told people I’d worked at the News of the World they often asked how many stories were made up. I said, to the best of my knowledge, none. Lawyers demanded the highest levels of proof from their reporters.

I was arrested because I’d transcribed a voicemail given to me by a source to stand up a story he was selling. It took just ten days for the police to verify I’d been given it legitimately rather than obtaining it through hacking, helped by the fact I’d taped our conversation, as was demanded by the NotW legal team.

During police questioning I was asked how well I knew the men sentenced today. Having spent most of my time on the road in the North, I’d only met most of them less than a handful of times. I’ve seen Neville Thurlbeck once more since.

He gave an insightful lecture about what makes a good Fleet Street journalist and changes to press freedom to my students shortly after his guilty plea late last year. Eloquent as ever – but also humble and contrite – it was a fascinating session.

Afterwards some students said they hoped he didn’t go to jail as he was “too nice”, seduced by the notorious charm which helped him keep many a source on side.

I said they were underestimating him and that I was sure he was tough enough to survive relatively unscathed. As he faces his first night behind bars, I do hope I’m right.

When asked whether he’d known about Rebekah Brooks and Coulson’s relationship, Neville said no one in the newsroom had a clue. They’d managed to keep it quiet right under the noses of some of the most experienced muckrakers in the industry.

“They were close colleagues for a long period of time and I feel for them and their families,” he added. “I know this makes me a terrible hypocrite.”

Chatting afterwards Neville told me that after long discussions with the police and prosecution, he couldn’t bring himself to give evidence against those former colleagues, despite the chance it could have reduced his sentence.

Judge Saunders said this week he was disappointed that “very successful, investigative, capable journalists” were not prepared to “come clean” until mitigation.

Now the gloves are well and truly off and these once lauded multi-award winning journalists are threatened and ridiculed. I have a little experience of how they may feel. During the 10 days before I was cleared, I was bombarded with abuse on email and social media.

Much of that was as a result of the timing of my arrest which was the first during the Leveson Inquiry and as such there was heightened interest. Despite being unimportant both at the News of the World and in terms of the investigation, my picture was splashed across the national news.

Like many comments directed at Rebekah Brooks, criticism was often highly gendered. There were suggestions about how I’d managed to get to Fleet Street at a young age and how I’d found some of my best stories. There were comments about my physical appearance and my sexual history. Some questioned my ability to ‘hack’ being a journalist, given I’d left the industry before I was 30.

I made the decision to move into academia because, while I hadn’t been asked to do anything illegal, I was often asked to do things I couldn’t square with my own conscience.

This included having to feed an incessant hunger for celebrity stories which was the number one priority under the editorship of Coulson, a former showbiz columnist for The Sun.

Perhaps naively, I’d become a journalist because I wanted, if not to change the world, then to at least try to make it better for people in communities like mine.

It’s the reason I chose tabloid journalism. No one I knew read the broadsheets. They simply did not speak to or for the mining and shipbuilding town where I was raised.

But by the time I got there the agenda of those papers seemed less concerned about fighting for the rights of working class people and more about keeping them distracted with meaningless fluff. And I certainly did not intend to spend my entire working life writing about the likes of Kerry Katona.

Indeed the place where I felt my work really mattered to ordinary people was not at the nationals but when working as a regional reporter.

Unfortunately, despite no accusations of a local newspaper being involved in phone hacking or bribing public officials, they are paying a heavy price for this scandal.

ON THE TRAIL: Pat Lavelle out on a story

ON THE TRAIL: Pat Lavelle out on a story

Throughout all of this, my old pal Pat Lavelle has popped into my mind time and again. He was my first News Ed having given me a job following after work experience.

I last saw him a few weeks before his death in March 2010 when he took me out for lunch. He died of the disease of the hack; too much coffee and too many fags.

If it hadn’t been for the relationship Pat built with detectives at West Yorkshire Police and his continuous pressure on them to DNA test the letters sent by Wearside Jack – the Yorkshire Ripper Hoaxer – John Humble would not have been found.

He was a brilliant local news hound who spent hours immersed in investigations, working his contacts in both the police and the criminal underworld. And in that he was one of the last of his kind.

Locals once depended on their relationships with public officials. Reporters began every morning doing “a round of calls” – ringing every duty inspector and fire station in their area – and going through the overnight logs. That’s how they got stories from their patch long before the nationals and the television. And that’s one of the reasons people bought them.

Now they are reliant on press officers who often think their job is to stop reporters finding out what is happening and feed them yarns about cleaning up graffiti and lower crime stats.

It also makes it more difficult for a young reporter from the regions to pique the interest of Fleet Street by getting a good line on a news story that’s made the nationals, like I did a decade ago.

And these foot soldiers didn’t even get a say in all this. Leveson wheeled out a selection of London’s great and good while in places like Ipswich and Liverpool and Glasgow and Country Durham reporters plodded on, trying to make a difference in an increasingly impossible climate, without even the ability to speak to their local cops.

The most damaging consequence of phone hacking and the way it has been used to curb press freedom is that it has succeeded in stopping any reporter speaking to any public official without the nod from the Great Press God in HQ.

In this they’ve ensured there will be no more Pat Lavelles. No more local newspaper hacks who use their contacts in public office to build brilliant investigations which matter to local people.

And that – for ordinary people all over this country- is perhaps the greatest travesty resulting from phone hacking, accusations of bribing public officials and subsequent changes to press freedom.

The Sun and other national papers will continue on, with the lawyers and the money to fight their corner. Local newspapers may not have that chance.


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