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Monday, 19 March, 2001, 23:49 GMT
Only the net can save politics
House of Commons BBC
Virtual parliament to make politics more representative?
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

Politics in the UK is in danger of becoming a spectator sport, warn experts.

A research report produced by web campaigners Citizens Online and a left-leaning think tank says that mass media, soundbites and spin are producing an increasingly disillusioned electorate and policies that ride roughshod over national opinion

Unless politicians seize the opportunity offered by the internet to radically change the way people, politicians and policy engage, democracy could be fatally undermined, warns the report.

To make democracy truly participatory, the organisations are calling for the creation of a virtual Commons that would let people debate local and national issues and help shape government policy.

Proper politics

The research paper, called Realising Democracy Online, was commissioned by the Institute of Public Policy Research and Citizens Online. It warns that politicians' reliance on TV, newspapers and radio to communicate with citizens risks "sucking both the substance and spirit out of the politics it projects".

It cautions that this reliance on mass media makes people sceptical about the quality of the information they are getting, and forces politicians to use snappy phrases to get a message across rather than let them spell out their ideas in detail.

"We feel that the needs of the citizen and democracy are not very well served by the present mainstream, mass media-based communication system," said Jay Blumler, emeritus professor of public communications at the University of Leeds.

He is co-author of the report with Stephen Coleman, director of The Hansard Society's e-democracy programme.

Communication breakdown

Professor Blumler said the number of ways that people communicated with each other was proliferating.

By contrast, the route that politicians used to talk to voters was shrinking.

The result, he said, was an ever greater division between citizens and their elected representatives.

The authors urge the government to develop an electronic Commons, an online debating chamber that would host discussions among citizens about local and national issues.

Professor Blumler said the age in which people were happy for politicians to make decisions without consulting them was coming to an end.

So far, politicians have done little to tap this surge of opinion, few MPs are contactable via e-mail and even fewer own and operate their own website.

'Head of steam'

Professor Blumler said that although discussion, both political and otherwise, was rife on the net, a virtual debating chamber would be needed to ensure discussions were free of the propaganda and commercial pressures that could sometimes distort chat on the net.

The internet is studded with websites, such as Stand and Ask Your MP, that attempt to make it easy for people to get involved in politics, but many people still feel politics is irrelevant to their everyday lives.

The authors say the virtual Commons could help change this situation and get people involved with democracy and policy making.

It would also let politicians know how the nation feels about particular issues.

Ultimately, the outcome of discussions in the virtual Commons could feed into policy making and better reflect national opinion.

"We hope the idea will trigger discussion and perhaps generate a head of steam," said Professor Blumler. "We feel that the time is fast approaching that this could work."

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