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Browncasting: Why can't Downing Street do digital?

YouTube does not play well for PM

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Comment Gordon Brown’s recent YouTube appearances may be embarrassing for what they say about his body language – but do they also expose a deeper inability on the part of this Government to come to terms with new media?

Since March 2006, the Prime Minister has been working hard to rebut David Cameron's accusation that he was "an analog politician in a digital age". The Number 10 website has been constantly adding new gimmicks, including a Twitter feed, a Facebook page and an e-petitions site. It also posts photographs on Flickr.

There is also a YouTube initiative: not – as the Times would have it – a "Downing Street YouTube portal", but simply a YouTube Channel branded to the PM’s address.

This was the immediate cause of Gordon Brown’s discomfort last week, as critics blasted a broadcast on the subject of MPs' expenses for being premature and insincere. Comedians and pundits alike lined up to lambast his peculiar gurning style of delivery, in which words and smile appeared to be consistently out of synch: Cabinet Minister, Hazel Blears, attracted publicity and accusations of disloyalty by arguing in the Guardian that online was not a good place for major policy announcements, and coining the phrase "YouTube if you want to".

The greatest source of embarrassment, however, was the revelation that the Number Ten Channel does not accept comments. A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office explained: "We need to adhere to the Civil Service code: that no content on the website can be party-political. We would need to monitor and moderate all comments posted online, which would have a significant impact on resources."

Perish the thought that comments are not allowed because they might provide a conduit for some genuine criticism of government! However, without this interactive element, the Number Ten YouTube Channel is little more than a fancy TV channel, allowing the PM to air his views without any fear of comeback. In other words: let's use the coolest medium available, but treat it like good old-fashioned telly.

They may have a point, as Broadcasts by Foreign Secretary David Milliband on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)YouTube Channel are regularly attended by comments such as "Boooooring!", "Nauseous" or even "buffon! wet behind the ears".

The argument about resource pressure doesn’t quite stack up. As of this morning, the PM’s last three broadcasts had attracted a grand total of 2,200 viewings – an average of around 700 views per broadcast. Only the expenses broadcast, which also had national news coverage, bucked the trend, with almost 40,000 views. Comments would most likely be a fraction of those totals.

We asked the Cabinet Office why they did not simply sub-contract the task of moderation. Their stunned silence suggested that this may not have occurred to them. However, there now exists a plethora of companies - with major players such as eModeration, Tempero, Chat Moderators, ICUC, & Metaverse Mod Squad (specialists in virtual worlds) – who would be happy to contract out such a service.

We spoke with Tia Fisher at eModeration. She was reluctant to tie herself down to exact figures, but felt that for a relatively high volume of comment and 24/7 coverage, the PM’s office could be looking at spending £50,000 a year. Given the low volume of viewings, together with the low comment figures on the FCO site, the final bill could well be far lower.

A browse through the YouTube channels for government departments reveals a further lack of joined-up thinking. While most departments disallow comments, the FCO, as already noted, allows them.

Some departments are "friends" with loads of other departments. Number Ten has just the one friend, with a link through to Peter Mandelson and the Department for Enterprise (BERR).

The Cabinet Office’s reluctance to spend our pennies also sits unhappily alongside pronouncements made by Culture Minister Andy Burnham last year. He said: "I don't think it is impossible that before you download something there is a symbol or wording which tells you what's in that content. If you have a clip that is downloaded a million times then that is akin to broadcasting.

"It doesn't seem over-burdensome for these to be regulated."

Here at El Reg, we have always understood this to refer to the classification of online content – and have chided Mr Burnham accordingly for the impracticality of the proposal in regard to services such as YouTube. It is therefore ironic to find implied support for this criticism coming from the Prime Minister’s own office, who feel that moderating a single YouTube Channel would "have a significant impact on resources".

However, according to the Department for Culture, requiring YouTube to moderate its entire content "doesn’t seem over-burdensome". Perhaps these two departments should talk more - right now, government is putting out some very conflicting messages over use of the internet, and doing itself no favours whatsoever. ®

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