It’s easy to understand why the Labour Party don’t want to talk about quite a lot of the stories currently in the news. The positive employment figures, below-expected inflation rate, welfare reform, Miliband’s reliance on Unite or Labour’s huge debt burden are all rather uncomfortable topics for them.
Which partially explains why they are making so much hay about the decision to delete the archives of ten years of speeches and press releases from the Conservative Party website.
It’s a big, easy target, inviting lots of jibes about deleting election promises and Winston Smith trying to change history by putting inconvenient facts down the memory hole. Accordingly, the Opposition have hit it with everything they’ve got.
The actual reason is, I suspect, rather less exciting than the conspiracy theories.
The party leadership wants its website to be a campaigning tool, rather than a news site.
Their oft-repeated objective is to make it more like Barack Obama’s site, which is occupied by current campaign messages and opportunities to sign up to various campaigns (and thus give valuable contact data), not by archives and news feeds.
I don’t know if he’s had any involvement in this decision, but it seems more than a coincidence that the comparison has cropped up since Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina was hired to advise the Conservative Party.
That’s all perfectly valid – the website is primarily meant to help them bolster their message and win the next election, not to serve as a journal of note, after all. But it’s hard to see why not wanting an archive linked from your homepage should automatically mean deleting the resource entirely.
Whatever the digital strategy behind the idea, the fact remains that this decision to delete all the old content is a rather foolish one.
For a start, it has handed an undeserved opportunity to Labour, who will now crow endlessly about hiding from promises and so on. It’s an unnecessary gift to their myth-builders, like John Prescott,who will now try to construct a whole legend about what is really just a process call (helped obligingly by the BBC, who apparently think this is the third most important political story of the day).
It’s also a bad decision in terms of the Party’s mood music. The time was that David Cameron accused Gordon Brown of being an “analogue Prime Minister in a digital age” – and yet now it is the Conservative website swimming against the tide of openness, data-sharing and content provision.
Finally, it’s a step which will peeve the political hacks. One of the great benefits of the internet is the ease with which we can all now find sources, quotes, records and statistics. We used to have to leaf through newspaper back-copies in public libraries in the hope of finding what we wanted – being able to Google and link is a mercy and a boon.
These deleted speeches may well be available elsewhere on the internet, but they are more scattered, open to allegations of mis-quoting and so on.
I’m not making special pleading for those of us who write about politics for a living – journalists have no God-given right to an easy life – but it is in the Conservative Party’s own interests to help rather than hinder scribblers. Sure, sometimes the stories people dig up from old speeches might be inconvenient or uncomfortable, but that’s nothing compared to the inconvenience and discomfort of being on the Lobby’s bad side.
An outfit which helps journalists in their hour of need (which is normally every hour) will build up some credit – doing the opposite just gets on people’s nerves.
Remember the way in which Labour messed journalists around by briefing out and then cancelling the election that never was – a decision which caused their press team to suffer for a long time.
This website change isn’t as bad as all that – it isn’t a bodyblow to credibility, or a fatal mis-step. But it is an error which could easily have been avoided. It may not be fair that it’s become such a high profile fuss, but CCHQ only have themselves to blame.