LIVE ISSUE/PM ON THE NET: Fanfare of Blair’s Web launch implies spin over substance - Tony Blair live on the Web! Is this a great leap forward or PR puff, John Owen asks

By JOHN OWEN, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 24 April 1998 12:00AM

It’s not every day that the launch of a Website makes the front page splash of the London Evening Standard. But then, not every Website is launched by the spin doctors of Downing Street.

It’s not every day that the launch of a Website makes the front

page splash of the London Evening Standard. But then, not every Website

is launched by the spin doctors of Downing Street.



’Blair to go live on the Net’ screamed the billboards last

Wednesday.



In true New Labour fashion, the press release announcing the news saw

fit to embolden some of the more significant items - just so unruly

hacks could be under no illusion about what they should write if they

wanted to stay ’on-message’. It read: ’16 April sees the launch of the

official 10 Downing Street Website with a major first for Europe planned

for 29 April.’



Which, if you haven’t got it by now, means that the Prime Minister, Tony

Blair, is to answer questions from (gasp) ordinary voters on the Web

next Wednesday. ’Broadcasting’ direct from 10 Downing Street, Blair will

answer questions submitted by his humble electorate in a live half-hour

interview with Sir David Frost.



This ’unique and ground-breaking’ move underlines Labour’s commitment to

open government, as well as to the Internet and all things modern, we

are told.



The ’cybergrilling’ of Blair, as one national newspaper mockingly called

it, will be followed by similar interviews with other leading ministers

in what is apparently destined to become a historic series.



In addition, the site will deliver at least three items of news every

day, fed ’direct from Number 10’ - so they’ll be objective, then. Other

mouth-watering elements include: ’the latest information on the workings

of government’, a searchable database of the Prime Minister’s speeches,

key government publications and, for the less cerebral user, a virtual

tour of Number 10 and even a history of the building.



It will also feature a discussion forum where, quite apart from the

special interviews, everyday folk like you, me and the blokes at the

company that designed the site, can ask questions of our elected

representatives. And, when we don’t like the answers they give, we can

slag them off for all to see - albeit at the risk of receiving one of

Alastair Campbell’s infamous venomous phone calls. Or perhaps, in this

case, e-mails.



OK, so it’s easy to take the piss. But in a media savvy society, it’s

surely not only cynical journalists who will find all this starry-eyed

nonsense about ’accessibility’ to the ’people’s Government’ rather

difficult to swallow from a party whose most distinguishing feature is

its obsession with controlling the media.



Whether the initiative enhances Labour’s image is not really our concern

here. A more interesting question, from the advertising industry’s

perspective, is what effect such a public demonstration of the

Government’s belief in the Internet will have on its status as a

communications medium.



It’s a similar question to that posed in the US when the Clinton

Administration launched a White House Website in a blaze of publicity in

1994. Camilla Ballesteros, the director of interactive marketing at CDP,

worked at Poppe Tyson, the US new-media agency which developed the White

House site, and she is now suspicious of the long-term commitment of

governments to such projects.



’The White House site is now a very dated, dull and, I suspect,

unfrequented site,’ she says. ’It is inevitable that governments will

make gestures such as creating their own sites, but this is primarily to

demonstrate their own modernity, as well as their openness and

approachability.’



Robert Hamilton, a founder of the interactive communications specialist,

Indexfinger, is another sceptic. ’I don’t think that Blair’s use of the

Net will give it enhanced credibility,’ he says bluntly. ’The only

benefit for the consumer might be that he’ll be rather easier to avoid

on the Web than in traditional media.’



Unlike Hamilton, however, Ballesteros does not despair. She points to

the ’wonderful’ investment the Government is making in the so-called

’national grid for learning’, which involves putting all of Britain’s

libraries on the Net by the year 2000. This, added to Labour’s manifesto

commitment to putting schools on the Net, is what will make a real

difference to the medium’s status, she believes.



It would appear, on this occasion at least, that there’s some substance

to the spin.



According to Ross Sleight, a director at BMP InterAction, the BMP DDB

division in charge of strategy and project management for the Number 10

site, it’s just the start of a genuine commitment to using new media:

’The Government is firmly committed to using different channels to reach

individuals,’ he says. ’(The site) is an obvious forerunner to what we’d

like to see on digital TV.’



According to Sleight, 20 per cent of Web users currently look at

Government information on the Net. And he fundamentally rejects

Ballesteros’s views on the White House site: ’It has the largest Net

population in the US and the Government is very pro-active in using it,’

he claims.



The ’what’s new?’ part of Welcome to the White House is certainly

updated regularly. As for traffic, however, it had attracted two million

hits at 13,000 a day by 15 May 1995 when, seemingly, someone got bored

with renewing the ’status report’ section. The design, too, is in need

of a radical overhaul.



Most disappointing, there’s absolutely nothing about the only Clinton

stories of any interest to most people: the Lewinsky/Jones sex

scandals.



But then this is probably because there are no debate forums. You can

e-mail Clinton and Al Gore, but you can’t make your questions or views

public.



It is this element that makes the Downing Street site genuinely

interesting.



And the most valuable insight it will give into the status of the Net

will be the extent to which people can be bothered to use it.



In the first three days, an impressive 25,000 individual visitors posted

more than 500 questions. Now, will the member for Hartlepool please

respond?



This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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