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How can the media make democracy more accessible? - Owen Thompson MP

How can the media make democracy more accessible? - Owen Thompson MP

Aden Simpson | PoliticsHome

4 min read Partner content

Speaking ahead of today’s Westminster Hall debate, SNP MP Owen Thompson explains how the media could play a defining role in reviving democratic participation.

It’s no secret that voter participation is not what it once was. From a peak of 84% in 1945, voter turnout fell to 60% by 2001, before a slight rise to 66% in last year’s General Election. Similar trends have been seen in much of the world’s advanced economies, and complex explanations are rife.

For Owen Thompson, co-Chair of the APPG on Democratic Participation, improving engagement and participation needn’t be so complicated, it’s about relating to people in innovative ways.

“There is a misconception that voting is a really complicated thing, when actually it’s one of the most straightforward things we can do,” said the MP for Midlothian.

“People have felt more detached over a period. There’s a massive responsibility on politicians to make sure they’re giving people reasons to vote, in the messages they’re putting out and the policies that they’re coming up with. But I think there’s a huge role for the media in this as well.”

Too often coverage of politics focuses on the scandals, he argues, which “doesn’t help to encourage participation,” and suggests that by opening the debate, the media as a whole could be encouraged to popularise democratic participation through more inventive means.

He offered a number of cases in popular media, where participation and change have been represented as both possible and positive. Gogglebox for example, “where politics is being presented in a completely different way, and you see the reactions of real people who are clearly interested in the topics that are being discussed,” or a recent storyline in Coronation Street, where one character runs for the Council, serving to politicise everyday life.

The effect of such positive and inclusive representation is to break preconceived barriers: not viewing politics as other, but being included as a subject in the processes of change rather than being subject to change.

“It’s showing that politics and elections aren’t necessarily about watching the leaders debate on the telly, or watching the parliament channel,” said Thompson. “If we simply present elections in the same way every time, that’s missing out huge numbers of people, because people access information in many different ways.”

New technologies in the media are also primed to revolutionise democratic participation, already utilised by many vote-based TV programmes, such as the X Factor, to encourage more participation.

“It certainly shows the systems and technologies are there,” he added. “It’s not rocket science to come up with some of these ideas; that would make it accessible to everyone.”

Campaign group, Bite the Ballot, which provides the Secretariat for the APPG on Democratic Participation, is already working in this space; trying to understand the fall in participation and come up with interactive resources that “gamify the democratic experience.”

Ahead of London’s Mayoral & Assembly Elections in May it has developed an app caller ‘Verto,’ where Londoners can compare their views against their neighbourhood and individual candidates, which encourages them to see that every issue is political.

“That for us is really how you get people who are some distance away from politics to engage,” said campaign manager, Abiodun Olatokun, “by helping them to see that their youth centre or their hospital or school, and the allocation of resources in and around it, are inherently political issues. We also use catchphrases like: ‘If you don’t do politics - politics will do you.’”

From the group’s qualitative research, they repeatedly found that the way politicians speak about issues doesn’t relate to people’s experience on the ground, and that the way issues were presented in the media was unnecessarily complex, and echoing Thompson, too often negative.

“We don’t think that politics is as difficult as it’s presented. The reading age required for political education in traditional media and journalism should be as low as possible,” he said.

“The narrative of hope is sadly lacking from modern political journalism. If we were in a position where people opened up a paper, not to hear negative political gossip but to hear what the local opportunities were for participating, I think that might make a really compelling argument for continued readership of traditional journalists, who are very much in demise.

“Perhaps there’s even a cynical rational self-interest in promoting positive stories.”

It is on this point that Thompson will be focusing his debate today: to encourage the media to think about different ways of re-engaging their audience in political programming.

“The first point is just to ask the media to take a look at what they’re doing,” said Thompson, “and to reach out to people in different ways, just to see what these media outlets can come up with. They’re the professionals in getting the message out there.

“It’s clearly not working at the moment, so let’s shine a wee light on it and see what they can come up with.”

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