Wandered over to a debate in Parliament yesterday evening entitled “The Internet: Saviour or Corruptor of Democracy?” with a panel of various new and old media types.

The panel was made up of Nick Robinson (BBC Political Editor); Peter Kellner (YouGov); Grant Shapps MP (Shadow Minister for Housing); Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes blog) and Michael White (The Guardian). The Chair was Danny Alexander MP.

I was hoping for two things from the debate – one, to learn about ideas and thoughts re the debate topic. However, to be honest, the other draw was the chance to see Paul Staines sparing again with Michael White and Nick Robinson – who he seems to have a rather fraught relationship.

True to form, the opening statements from the panellists swiftly degenerated into personal animosity between the three of them – which is amusing, but hardly informative.

Grant Shapps I thought was the most open minded about the whole concept of using the internet as a channel to talk to his constituents – although quite of lot of people expressed the usual concern that too many politicians use internet publishing tools as just A.N.Other broadcasting tool, and ignore the opportunities for two-way conversations.

I notice an increasing number of politicians using Twitter, and some do engage really well with other users, and some just use it as a broadcast tool to spit out news to all and sundry. I do slightly worry that people expect MPs who have Twitter to respond to every single comment fired at them, and that is unfair.

The other area where old media journalists just “don’t get it” is that Twitter can be conversational and it actually is nice to hear boring politicians using Twitter to chat with people and have non-political conversations. Grant Shapps has been told off by the media for daring to have a private life, and Tom Harris MP has faced the same problems.

Peter Kellner expressed this concern in a different way and suggested that if this goes too far, then people might actually start wanting to bypass MPs and seek direct democracy – with referendums on everything. He warned that would probably result in the instant return of the death penalty, where MPs are certainly out of step with public opinion – although I would have drawn more comparisons with the State of California where nearly perpetual referendums have almost ruined the State as a functioning entity.

I agree that direct democracy is bad, but doubt people want it as it is just too much hard work. We like to outsource the responsibility to MPs, and we can them blame them when things go wrong. In a society with a lot more direct democracy, we have to accept the blame for mistakes we make and I doubt many people will like that idea.

Nick Robinson seemed to me to be interested in the potential of the many strands of communication that the internet offers, but seemed more frustrated by the sheer amount of noise that it engenders. The internet phenomenon of trolls and sock-puppets also distressed him, and the panel agreed with the implications he raised. I read a heck of a lot of political blogs, but now rarely read the comments as they do often seem to bring to attract the most extremes of the political spectrum. I get the impression that Nick Robinson could become a huge advocate, but needs more time to work out a how he can be more comfortable with the medium.

I’ll be blunt about Michael White, who came across as incredibly arrogant though the whole evening and seemed to be really of the opinion that anyone who is not a “pwopper” journalist is just scum to be ignored. I can’t put my finger on it, but I just felt that he treated everyone with disdain and anyone who doesn’t get on the floor and do the “we’re not worthy” bow when meeting him is being disrespectful.

Throughout the debate, those of us in the room were using twitter to comment on the points being raised – as were people following the Twitter debate from elsewhere. A big screen was set up in the room so that everyone could see the (unmoderated) comments as they flowed down the screen. A bit like the weekly PMQs chat on Twitter, some of it was good, some funny, and some was just trolling.

While the evening was highly enjoyable, especially the evident animosity between several panellists, the problem is that I left the evening with actually only one comment that was at all interesting. Grant Shapps MP is aiming to have collected the email addresses of around 20% of his constituents before the next election and wants to use that as a tool to speak (and hopefully, listen) direct to his constituents.

Considering the huge success the Obama campaign had in the USA using emails as an additional route to talk to activists – it is surprising that this was the first time I had heard of a UK politician expressing an explicit “sales target” for collecting email addresses. Of course, the downside is that bulk email sending is much more complex than sending a few emails, and if the IT side is not managed properly, then he could find everything being blocked by ISP spam filters, who keep a rather closer eye on bulk-email senders than on private individuals.

The whole evening was basically how the internet changes the rules for news publishers – and a bit about use of email and social networking websites.

For me though, the BIG and exciting opportunity for the internet to improve democracy is in the very nature of what democracy is. A democratic nation is one where the electorate hold the elected to account and can remove them when necessary.

To hold MPs accountable we need information – and while blogs etc are improving that to a degree, the real change could come from, to use some buzz-words, the power of mashups, crowdsourcing and open data.

Governments sit on a vast pile of information, statistics etc which are not available to the general public to look at, or when available are limited and in weird computer formats.

A good example of how the internet improves things was the day the expenses were finally published by Parliament – in a slightly odd PDF file format and with most of the information blacked out. The Guardian newspaper had a crowdsourcing tool up and running that let the general public flick through the files and flag up anything of interest. Something that couldn’t have been done (easily) by the newspaper on its own.

That is one specific example – but what if most government data was made available online, in machine readable code so that anyone can take it and do anything with it . Obviously personally identifiable stuff would be blocked.

People can sit at home and play with the numbers, throw them against other numbers and see what happens. Most of the results of this will be banal, stupid or plain mischievous – but someone, somewhere will do something that no one else ever thought of. Their pie chart will make us all sit up and gasp – and it will change government policy.

To me that is the most exciting opportunity for how the internet can boost democracy, and slowly (very slowly) that is starting to happen in some government departments.

Thanks to the Henry Jackson Society who provided me my ticket, and to co-organiser, DelibConsults. Some other bloggers who were there include, the aforementioned Delib, ToryBear and Guido Fawkes.

Update – Grant Shapps has added his opinion to the Conservative Blog.

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