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This transcript has been typed at speed, and therefore may contain mistakes. Newsnight accepts no responsibility for these. However, we will be happy to correct serious errors.

Can the internet change the relationship between rulers and ruled? 6/3/01

Moscow has always been big on the latest propaganda styles, and not so big on free speech. So when Vladimir Putin says he's going to take questions live on the internet, students of history might start looking for a catch. Would he answer the questions? Would follow-up questions be allowed? Would he get off lightly? Would the two Russian journalists picking the questions turn it into an exercise in sucking up to Mr President, or might the presence of the BBC's Bridget Kendall toughen things up a bit? Cut to Brixton. Urban 75 is an electronic journalist. He also leads one of the leading political discussion and campaigning sites in Britain. We asked him and his colleagues to let us know whether all this met their high libertarian standards.

My first question to old Vlad:
"there have been constant accusations of torture and human rights abuses taking place in Chechnya by Moscow forces. What steps are you taking to bring the guilty to justice?" Let's just send that off.

Unfortunately, Mr Putin decided to answer this one instead.

We have a lot of leaders and managers who are very professional, who work in a very professional manner, and the majority of them are such. And I would like to thank them for it.

Bridget Kendall did manage to briefly change the subject to Chechnya before one of the two Russian journalists interrupted. From the thousands available, he had spotted the killer question all politicians dread.

Mr Putin, our school has changed a lot after 1st September 2000 when you gave us a computer with internet access, and they also wanted you to look at their website and ask your opinion. It's a good site, but it's not right. I would show mushrooms rather than apples.

It's really more a case of cyberfluff. It looks like they're doing something, it looks like they're getting interactive with the internet kids, but in reality it's more or less a one-way broadcast. He's probably been offered such a huge range of questions, he can pick the subjects he wants. There's no real sense of interaction. You can't argue with him. Basically, you ask a question. He can pontificate for the next half an hour. You've just got to sit at home sort of going, "I want to disagree with you."

But is Vladimir Putin's determination to take the internet more or less on his own terms actually any different from what our own home-grown politicians are doing? At Central Office, they're investing heavily in the internet as a way of fighting the imminent elections, not because they think it will be the deciding factor this time, but because they think it could be an invaluable tool next time round, or the time after that.

I think, in 15 or 20 years' time, the internet will probably be the primary mechanism, maybe the only mechanism, by which people can get across a political message. But it may well be, of course, that by then democracy itself will be different. Perhaps we won't be electing Members of Parliament to take decisions for us in quite the same way. Perhaps once we can crack all the issues of security and access, we can get to a world in which most people can take most decisions electronically themselves.

The Tories fired their first shot in their election campaign last month with this mass-mailed offering. Not exactly the latest slick viral marketing gimmick, but more interactive than Labour's managed to be so far.

The Labour Government really haven't been either interactive or internet-friendly at all. In terms of policy, they've driven a lot of internet specialists abroad with their terrible IR35 policy. Their websites aren't remotely interactive. It's all just a mechanism by which Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell can tell the rest of us what to think. That's not what the internet is about and they've missed a great opportunity.

Back in Brixton, the Urban 75 collective aren't impressed with the Russian spirit of interactivity. The verdict - a raspberry. We have been here before. Attempts by the media and political establishments to master new technology have, since the first days of television, always seemed to come across as, at least awkward.

Good evening. You've just seen a picture of Winston Churchill accepting the 300,000 target┐.

Or extremely flat. The question with the new media is whether it isn't merely a new tool for politicians, but whether it changes the nature of the job politicians have to do.

We're joined here in the studio by the political columnist of the Guardian, Hugo Young, and by James Crabtree of Voxpolitics. This opens all sorts of possibilities. Let's stick to the question of the relationship between voters and politicians, to start with. Do you think, James Crabtree, it's going to really change this relationship?

Yes. I think it will do. Maybe not now, but sooner than people think. I think a number of remarkable things happened today with Vladimir Putin. Firstly, the very first question that was asked was asked by a Canadian on a British website to a Russian politician. That lets you see exactly how global this will be, that you now have a global conversation going on between voters and politicians. The other thing is there were 15,000 people who couldn't get a question in. There's a real pent-up demand there for people who want to ask these questions.

There's one factual mistake in what you've said, of course. The guy who asked that first question was not a voter.

No, but he's interested in politics, and he was a Russian resident in Canada, and therefore has an interest in Russian politics.

What do you make of how this relationship is going to change?

I think, in the Russian situation, where they have no experience of democracy, this little window of an opportunity to appear to be having a relationship with the President is something new and something quite valuable. But I think that here, and in America - you see, in America, the presidential election, quite a lot of this activity took place, and to most people's eyes was a disappointment. It did not actually produce interactivity. It didn't increase the turnout, for example. It didn't increase the evident signs of enthusiasm for politics. I think that the mistake people will make is to imagine that this new technology, which of course is very valuable - and as Tim Collins was saying on the film, in time, will become important - it's no substitute for the excitement with the issues. The dilemma we have now about political apathy is to do with the great public out there not really caring sufficiently about many of the issues. You're not going to change that with technology.

My suspicion is people who look at the American experience and say that the internet didn't do anything are looking at the wrong areas. If you look at the way people sent e-mails to each other, people send jokes, a massive number of political jokes. People looked at the Florida election over the web. That was the dominant medium of doing it. If you look at online presidential debates, they didn't work very well, but if you look at what people actually use in their daily lives and how it translates to politics, and that's mostly e-mail at this stage, it was a stunning success. I think people, when they knock internet politics, have not appreciated that.

Equally, if you look at some of those chat places, you don't see people having Socratic discussions at a high level. What you find, on the whole, are people's very strong prejudices just being shouted across the air waves at each other.

On the other hand, you could make a case, couldn't you, for saying that television is actually very bad at communicating facts. It's supremely good at impressions, which is why politics has become so much about images, which may be one of the reasons people are slightly disenchanted. But returning to text and words actually enables people to engage with facts and political issues, and that may change things?

As a text man myself, I'm thoroughly in favour of that. But I think that the challenge still for the websites is going to be to make politics exciting. The earnest websites, with all the text and all the stuff on it, is probably not going to be enough to attract people into politics in the way we might like to think it would do.

This does bring us to the troublesome question of the Widdiweb, Ann Widdecombe's own website.

I haven't checked into that, actually.

I did check into it earlier. In fact we all did. Here's a sample page. It's her with her cats. "Goodness gracious, what is that? It's Mr Pugwash, my black cat. Goodness gracious, are there others? Yes, indeed, my cat Carruthers."

High politics!

If that's what it's being used for, what does it tell us?

That's one of the best websites you will see an MP do. One of the reasons why a recent research report called Patricia Hewitt's website "comically inept" is because most MPs' websites are horrible. They don't provide any opportunity for interactivity. They don't have any news. Now, Ann Widdecombe's may be a rare sight with a certain look and flavour, but it's regularly updated, it's got lots of interesting things on it, and it allows you to get in contact with your representative.

It's interesting, isn't it, that it should be attached to the name of a politician who is already, in her peculiar way, box office. People know about Ann Widdecombe and she's played up to this with her website. You would find it very hard, Patricia Hewitt is an example of a very earnest, very worthy politician, but very unlikely to have a website that's going to be very interesting.

We are construing politics very tightly in terms of elected politicians and recognised political parties. You alluded to this earlier, the way in which some political organisations, mass organisations now, are developing different ways of organising themselves around issues.

That's right. The critical thing in this is information. Previously, if I wanted to be interested in politics and I had to listen to Jeremy Paxman or read Hugo Young, now the information is out there for me to get for myself. What this has allowed, fuel protesters or protesters against the WTO or the Countryside Alliance, they have the information, they know people are lying to them and they have the organisational tools to go and do something about it. That really has, to a certain extent, got politicians worried because they can't control it.

That's underlined the point I was making before really. What you have to start with is an issue or a situation you really care about. Those sort of issues people really care about, until they will seek out the websites and seek out the net, but they will not, I think, seek out the Tory manifesto.

But they are given a different tool with which to organise themselves?

They are, yes.

Thank you both very much.

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