Why not do an extra leaders’ debate via #Meerkat?

Perhaps the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats could stage an online debate?

There’s a new app in town, called Meerkat.  It allows you to stream live video direct from your mobile phone or tablet, with the link appearing in your Twitter stream.

Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior advisor to Barack Obama, writes:

If 2004 was about Meetup, 2008 was about Facebook, and 2012 was about Twitter, 2016 is going to be about Meerkat (or something just like it).

(He is of course talking about US politics).  I wonder whether that’s true though: I fancy there may be a premium on asynchronicity—sending messages to people to read when they have time, rather than in the moment.  How much value is there in This Is Happening Literally Right Now over the Twitter news model of This Just Happened? Meerkat does not seem to have any catch-up functionality—if you click on a  link to a stream that has ended, there’s no way to view it back.  Other services like Ustream and Google Hangouts do offer that functionality and I bet the Meerkat devs are beavering away (or whatever it is a meerkat does) to get this feature into the app.

Pfeiffer also notes how streaming apps like this could undercut the broadcasters in the same way that blogs and Twitter have undercut traditional news outlets:

Think about it this way: Up until about two weeks ago, broadcasting an event live required a large and quite expensive satellite truck, a ton of expensive cables and expensive satellite time. Now you can do it with your phone — the same machine you use to text, check Instagram, hail an Uber, and play Candy Crush.

The first part of this is not really true: broadcasting an event live has not required a satellite truck for many-years. Streaming services are well established and I have experimented with them myself, streaming round-table discussions for English PEN and even running the first (and probably, only) Second Life event at a political party conference while I was at the SMF, back in 2008.

Such events did require a little bit of technical knowledge to pull off: messing about with firewalls, IP addresses and FireWire cables to get the images online.  An iPhone or Android app would have been far easier.  However, the cost to live-stream an event was in the hundreds of pounds, not tens of thousands.

During the past month there has been a great deal of debate in the UK about… debates.  David Cameron has refused to debate Ed Miliband in a head-to-head encounter and will only take part if the six leaders of the other major parties are all included.

Most of the controversy has centred around the OfCom rules on fair election coverage, by which the major broadcasters like the BBC and Sky are bound to abide.  Could the broadcasters ’empty chair’ Mr Cameron?  Currently it seems they could not, without trampling over their obligation to impartiality.

Perhaps the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats could stage an online debate? They could hire some ornate town hall for the evening (you might even find some local council would offer it gratis) and plan a three-way debate.  A prominent journalist could certainly be found to chair the event (I understand that Jeremy Clarkson might be free) and streaming costs to (say) YouTube could be made to fit a modest budget.  Or, they could entirely do away with the expense of audio-visual equipment, by inviting the audience to broadcast it themselves via Meerkat, Twitter and Facebook mobile apps.

Don’t tell me the debate would not be watched by the many election junkies among us, and that it would not be reported by the media.  It would not deliver the audience of a prime time BBC One boradcast, but it would certainly influence the campaign.

And if the Conservatives refused to take part, they would have to make some other case for declining, other than an appeal to the OfCom rules.  If the Prime Minister did not show up then he would certainly be ’empty chaired’.

Yes, announcing a debate and then calling the other side a chicken for refusing to take part is a cheeky campaign tactic. But it’s a staple of the cut-and-thrust world of electioneering. With more opportunities and platforms emerging for debate, this sort of thing will only become more common in elections to come.

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