Emma Watson and Everyday Feminism: new blog series on Our Shared Shelf

This is the first in a series of blog posts which will share some of my research on Our Shared Shelf, a feminist book club and discussion forum established by Emma Watson. This post provides a brief introduction to the group and my research.

Emma Watson may be one of the most recognisable women in the world right now. She is, at the very least, one of the highest paid actors of 2017 (excluding, y’know, men). Best known for her role as Hermione Granger in the eight Harry Potter films and more recently as Belle in the stunningly successful remake of Beauty and the Beast, you have probably also seen her talking about gender inequality. Emma Watson is interesting to me as a celebrity whose activism takes multiple forms. Since 2014 she has been a UN Women goodwill ambassador, and the public face of their HeforShe campaign. On her social media accounts advocacy sits side by side with, and is often integrated into, promotion for her films and fashion shoots. The audience she can attract through these forms of activism is impressive; her speech to launch HeforShe at the UN in 2016 has been viewed online millions of times and received international media attention, while she also has one of the most-followed Instagram accounts in the world.

What interests me the most are Watson’s slightly more unconventional methods of using her celebrity status to promote, and encourage engagement with, a political message. As part of my broader research on celebrity interventions in politics, I decided to take a closer look at Our Shared Shelf.

What is Our Shared Shelf?

Picture1

Our Shared Shelf (OSS) is a feminist book group and discussion forum hosted by Goodreads. Watson founded the group in January 2016 as a next step to her UN role, telling potential members that she wanted to share what she was learning from reading ‘as many books and essays about equality as I can get my hands on’, and to ‘hear your thoughts too’. OSS rapidly became the Goodreads’ largest group, and currently has over 200,000 members. Every other month a book is selected (usually by Watson) for discussion, from memoirs by feminists to novels with feminist themes, but the forum allows members to discuss a broad range of topics related (and unrelated) to feminism. Watson also frequently interviews the authors of feminist books selected for OSS, often sourcing questions from members.

Why was I interested?

 My interest in the many ways that politics and popular culture intersect has always been driven by curiosity over what this means for how people consume, discuss, and act upon political information. I wanted to say more about the people who engage with celebrity-led or assisted campaigns, why they do this, and what this means for their everyday engagement with politics.

I was also interested in OSS in the context of online spaces as a platform both for feminist discussion and activism, and for misogynist abuse. We’ve seen how Twitter can be used as a platform to share experiences of sexism and sexual violence, for example through the Everyday Sexism project. While social media may lower barriers to participation, Emma A. Jane’s Misogyny Online shows that sexist abuse through these same platforms leads some women to self-censor, while witnessing attacks may lead others not to speak out in the first place. I was interested in how OSS might complement engagement with political issues on social media, or attract people who don’t want to discuss feminism or sexism in this context.

What did I want to know?

  • How does Emma Watson engage with and represent OSS? (Why) do members perceive her as a legitimate representative of OSS or of feminists more broadly?
  • Why and how do OSS members engage with the group, and what does this mean for their everyday engagement with political issues?

How did I go about this?

I’ll spare you the details (unless you want to chat digital methods and research ethics, in which case marry me let me know). I used participant observation and fieldnotes to see which key themes would emerge and to answer questions about Watson’s representation of and engagement with the group (including through social and other media). I decided for a number of reasons (including ethical considerations) that it would be best to approach questions about OSS members primarily through interviews conducted online, but I also got to attend the Women’s March in London with a couple of participants. I came to digital ethnography clueless and left fascinated, and credit these books for helping.

What did I find?

Too much for one post! Here are the main questions I ended up addressing:

  • Why do members participate in OSS? What is the role of Emma Watson in prompting and/or motivating members to join?
  • (Why) is Emma Watson perceived as a legitimate representative for feminists?
  • To what is extent is OSS perceived as a community, and what is it a community for?
  • Do participants learn as a result of engaging with OSS, and what do they learn about?
  • Does engagement with OSS increase political discussion, efficacy, and/or participation?

Picture2I think that this case can tell us a lot about a lot of things, from why some celebrities are seen as legitimate political actors while others are not, to why some people love to post on message forums and what they get out of their engagement (as well as those who prefer to just read, or ‘lurk’).

I’ll be sharing some of my findings on this blog as I work through these and other questions, and if any of this interests you I’d love, as Emma Watson says, to hear your thoughts too 🙂

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Thoughts on Angelina Jolie’s keynote at World On The Move

This week the BBC held ‘World On The Move’, a day of special programming on migration issues, and I was lucky enough to to attend Angelina Jolie Pitt’s keynote speech. Jolie has worked with the UN for the past 15 years, becoming Special Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2012. During this time she has made 50 visits to the countries most affected by displacement. In her speech, Jolie warned that the international humanitarian system is breaking down and called on nations to work together, describing the crisis as a ‘major test of our values and our resolve’. While emphasising the need for countries to take responsibility for accepting many more refugees and putting transparent and efficient processes in place for this, Jolie argued that unless countries worked together to ‘address the root causes of the crisis’, the number of refugees crossing borders would continue to increase and the crisis worsen. Jolie’s speech and Q&A can be viewed in full here.

      The talk and brief question and answer session that followed gave an interesting insight into her role as a high profile ambassador for the UN, and what celebrity activists can, and perhaps cannot, contribute to important debates in this context. Here are a few thoughts:

Jolie’s role as celebrity activist and UN ambassador

PAY-Angelina-Jolie

From Mirror.co.uk

‘I know that no one can speak for 60 million displaced people, and I know that it is the democratic right of the citizens of each country to reach their own conclusions about the right way forward. I therefore put my thoughts before you with humility and respect, seeking to understand all points of view.’

– Angelina Jolie Pitt

While Jolie made no reference to her career, fame or wealth, the above quote struck me as an acknowledgement that not everyone will perceive her as a credible or authoritative voice on the refugee crisis. Jolie clearly sees it as part of her UN role to lobby leaders to engage with each other and the UN, and she said she would be ‘pressing my own government and speaking loudly about it’. However, given her ‘disappointment’ with the US government and acknowledgement of broader political barriers to a solution due to a ‘politics of fear and separation’, it is unsurprising that Jolie also directed her plea for action toward citizens, calling on us to  ‘demand our governments show the leadership necessary’.

Rational, unemotional, professional

I was interested to hear Jolie call for a ‘rational centre’, rejecting solutions driven by emotion or ‘naïve humanitarianism’ as well as arguing that countries need to prioritise tackling the ‘root causes’ of the crisis. This is a contrast with criticism of celebrity activists as promoting superficial, populist changes over long-term solutions. But with Jolie’s activism so strongly tied to the UN, perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. Her speech not only overtly reflected her UN position by criticising the underfunding of UN appeals and calling for international cooperation as the only viable option, but was also reflected in her advocacy of a ‘rational centre’ which rejected calls for open borders.

            Jolie’s rejection of ‘emotional’ responses went hand in hand with her tone during the speech. While she spoke of her anger, she did not really show it, presenting a very professional image both in her appearance and tone. Given Jolie’s experience, I was expecting more personal, emotive stories from her trips to convey her argument. Perhaps there is a perceived need as somebody who became famous as an actor but also as a ‘wildchild’ in gossip magazines to project a serious image, and as a UN envoy and a woman to appear ‘statesmanlike’.

            Jolie did take a more personal approach during the Q&A, but this did not always feel convincing. This was not necessarily Jolie’s fault; the use of stories about people you have met in response to audience questions now feels very reminiscent of how politicians deal with questions they don’t want to answer. One response, to a journalist who challenged Jolie’s distinction between economic migrants and refugees based on her experience of fleeing Afghanistan, did feel a little uncomfortable; her gushing over what great, self-sufficient people she met in Afghanistan brought Jolie’s privilege as a wealthy white celebrity back to the front of my mind. But in other ways it is her personal experience which makes her so compelling, as she has an ability to contrast the situation for refugees in different countries over the last 15 years that many politicians don’t.

Media response

Jolie Telegraph front pageWhen Angelina Jolie speaks people listen, but they don’t necessarily repeat her message. While her speech was covered widely by online news sources, Jolie’s plea for international cooperation and hope for a better tomorrow was overshadowed in the mainstream press by former MI6 head Sir Richard Dearlove’s argument that allowing visa free access to the EU for Turkish citizens would be ‘like storing gasoline next to the fire one is trying to extinguish’. The BBC were criticised for pro-EU bias, and Jolie for allegedly ‘sticking her nose into’ the referendum debate despite not explicitly mentioning it, even though Dearlove has advocated Brexit. That his argument was given greater prominence than hers suggests that fame, even to the extent that Jolie possesses it, is not enough to rewrite news cycles rather than simply be written into them. Coverage of Jolie’s talk also frequently focused on her brief criticism of Donald Trump, an issue she was reluctant to address when asked.

How much of a difference can Angelina Jolie make?

Jolie’s talk left me impressed by her experience, eloquence and dedication, but also curious about what she might say about the refugee crisis in private, without her UN hat on. When asked whether she had hope, she responded that you ‘have to’, and that we have been through darker times and ‘risen from the ashes’.  But Jolie, in keeping with her argument against ‘naïve humanitarianism’, did not neglect discussion of the barriers to the international cooperation she argues is necessary to address the root causes of the crisis. In this context, can her lobbying of political leaders or efforts to persuade citizens to do the same make much difference? It would be fascinating to know whether and how she feels she can really do so, but I would never have the courage to ask and she is much too professional to tell.

 

Does reaction to Charlotte Church’s ‘prosecco socialism’ show that authenticity is out of reach for celebrity activists?

It’s fair to say that Charlotte Church was unhappy with the result of the UK’s latest general election. After the Conservative party unexpectedly won an overall majority, Church not only reiterated her dislike for the Tories on Twitter, but attended an anti-austerity protest in Cardiff. This attracted a lot of attention, and by June 20th Church was not only participating in The People’s Assembly anti-austerity protest in London, but giving a speech to the thousands of protestors in parliament square.

Church was not the only celebrity to address the crowd, but her speech did attract the most attention. This may be partly because Russell Brand did not want to give interviews that day, but may also be because Brand is now an established and expected presence at such events, whilst Church is a fresher face. Her speech attracted much online coverage, and she was interviewed for BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and SKY News.

Church would have known that her role in the protest would attract criticism; before the event had even finished she had discussed accusations of hypocrisy, and the difficulties artists face in talking about politics, with Channel 4 News. Church’s mum even wore a T-Shirt stating ‘prosecco socialist’, referencing her comeback that she was ‘more of a prosecco girl’ to the leader of the Welsh Conservatives who dismissed her as a champagne socialist. Church had previously been criticised for not ‘voluntarily’ paying a higher rate of tax, after she stated that she would be happy to pay 70% tax in order to contribute to properly funded public services and an end to austerity.

Church and her mum at the protest in London

Church and her mum at the June 2o protest in London

Church’s speech, however, brought a new wave of criticism, much of this using misogynistic language, and new accusations of hypocrisy. Looking at celebrity involvement in progressive campaigns, a clear pattern emerges. Evidence of alleged hypocrisy is quickly found and (re)posted by right-wing bloggers or journalists, and this is then used by others to criticise the celebrity’s political statements and suggest that they should not be participating in political movements. Following Church’s statement that she would pay 70% tax to support public services, a Conservative councillor uploaded a video to YouTube of Church appearing on Have I Got News For You 12 years ago (aged just 17), complaining that she pays too much tax. Guido Fawkes then embedded this in a post accusing Church of being on a ‘mission to be reborn as a poundshop Russell Brand’.

Following the protest Fawkes accused Church of further hypocrisy, publishing a quote from the website of the accountancy firm used by her companies which stated that ‘lowering and deferring tax is, of course, a key aim’. This new allegation was used by many of Church’s Twitter critics. This is now a familiar pattern; the speed with which Russell Brand (following a housing protest) was declared a hypocrite for the tax affairs of his landlord, or Martin Freeman a champagne socialist because of his son’s private education (following his Labour party political broadcast) is impressive. But Church was faced with not only trying to refute these accusations of hypocrisy, but also calling out the sexism of many of her critics.

Can a celebrity be an ‘authentic’ activist? 

These accusations of hypocrisy are founded on a perceived inconsistency between the person’s political statements, or the political aims of any movements, groups or parties they are associated with, and other aspects of their life. This fits with recent academic debates over what authenticity is, which conclude that authenticity is a performance. Rather than about ‘being yourself’, to be perceived authentic a person must present themselves consistently across the different areas of their life, and the different platforms they use to communicate.[1]

Clearly, this perceived authenticity is difficult to achieve, but there are three key reasons it may be even more difficult, perhaps even impossible, for a celebrity who becomes involved in left-wing political activism. Cries of ‘hypocrite’ often come from the tension between the celebrity’s elevated wealth and status and their desire to speak on behalf of those who do not have these privileges, but there are other barriers to authenticity. If someone has been famous for a number of years, it is almost inevitable that some aspect of their mediated life can be found and used as evidence of inconsistency, and therefore inauthenticity. Charlotte Church became known as a singer at the age of 11, we should not be surprised that her opinions have changed over the past 18 years.

The celebrity/activist is also likely to have their fingers in several pies, which creates more opportunities for inconsistency. Those who wish to ‘expose’ the celebrity as inauthentic can search for tensions between the celebrity’s commercial activities and their political statements. Even in cases where these allegations of hypocrisy are tenuous, such as Russell Brand being held accountable for the actions of his landlord, the celebrity is then drawn into time-consuming arguments with critics.

Charlotte Church and her mum Maria at an anti-austerity protest in Cardiff. From Mirror.co.uk

Charlotte Church and her mum Maria at an anti-austerity protest in Cardiff. From Mirror.co.uk

If consistency is the key to being perceived as authentic, and authenticity is the key to being taken seriously, the celebrity-activist is likely to find that their fame opens doors, but that there is a crowd of critics armed with Google and Twitter waiting on the other side. Church’s case demonstrates that for women, their authenticity as an activist will often be debated in misogynistic terms. Of course a celebrity’s political actions or statements, and their intentions, should not go unscrutinised. However, these petty disputes over minor inconsistencies in a celebrity’s mediated life hold the celebrity to a standard of ‘authenticity’ which is unattainable, and distract from the political issues up for debate in the process.

[1] See the following: Sarah Banet-Weiser (2012). AuthenticTM: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture

Alice Marwick (2013). Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age

Alice Marwick and danah boyd (2011). To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter. Convergence 17 (2).

Sarah Thomas (2014) ‘Celebrity in the “Twitterverse”: history, authenticity and the multiplicity of stardom. Situating the “newness” of Twitter’, Celebrity Studies 5 (3).

 

 

Campaign 2015: #Milibrand

When an image emerged on Twitter of Ed Miliband leaving Russell Brand’s apartment, speculation abounded that Brand could be about to endorse Labour. Having spent this year writing a case study on Russell Brand’s involvement in housing campaigns, I told everyone who asked that there was no way that Brand would ever endorse the Labour party. Then, this happened.

Having released most of the ‘Milibrand interview’ on April 29th, to mixed reactions, Brand suddenly announced that more ‘unseen footage’ would be uploaded 3 days before polling day. In this Trews, which has been viewed over 800,000 times, Brand shows ‘the part of the interview that I found most encouraging’, where they discuss the ideal of politics as community-led. Brand then concluded, ‘David Cameron might think I’m a joke, but I don’t think there’s anything funny about what the Conservative party have been doing to this country, and we have to stop them. So my view is this: If you’re Scottish, you don’t need an English person telling you what to do, you know what you’re gonna be doing. If you’re in Brighton, I think it would be a travesty if we lost the voice of Caroline Lucas in Westminster. But anywhere else, you’ve gotta vote Labour, you’ve gotta get the Conservative party out of government in this country so that we can begin community-led activism’.

Unsurprisingly, this got people talking. Some conservative-supporting papers speculated that Brand’s support would be damaging for Labour, criticising Miliband for ‘going to’ Brand.  I would argue, however, that Brand was taking the bigger risk in (temporarily) backing Labour. The risk to Brand was, of course, not an electoral one, but the possibility that his supporters might not back his decision. Whilst many articles mocked Brand as a ‘hypocrite’ for making a ‘U-turn’ on his (often oversimplified) anti-voting stance, I saw many more Trews viewers and Brand fans objecting to his ‘you’ve gotta vote Labour’ statement because they had already decided to vote for the Green party.

This is unsurprising; as I discussed in a previous post, Brand agrees with the Greens on almost everything, and has worked with Lucas on drug-reform campaigns. Brand also interviewed Caroline Lucas and Natalie Bennett, describing Lucas as a ‘lovely human being, the very kind of person you want making political decisions’, and encouraging those living in Brighton Pavilion to vote for her. Brand stopped short of endorsing the Green party as a whole, however, because whilst he agrees with many of their policies, ‘unless there’s considerable, massive electoral reform in our country, the Green party cannot impose those politics’.

Not everyone accepted an endorsement for the Labour party from the man who has been calling for revolution. The administrator of one fan group on Facebook, which has over 4000 members, announced that she would close the group (which had become, for many, a place to express support for the Greens), as she felt disappointed and mislead. Whilst members of the group talked her out of this, she was far from alone in her disappointment. Across Twitter, Facebook groups and pages and YouTube comments, there was much debate over whether the endorsement was a realistic assessment of the election, or a hypocritical betrayal of Brand’s ideals.

Having initially been shocked to see Brand back Labour, his motivations became much clearer and, in my opinion more relatable, after he posted a long piece explaining that he and the Trews team had actually decided to back Labour before the ‘Milibrand’ interview. His election day edition of The Trews also addressed the ‘often vicious’ comments he’d received following the endorsement. Brand explained that his opinion that it didn’t matter who won the election was chipped away at by the stories of those close to him, for whom Conservative welfare policies would cause missed opportunities and misery. ‘Ultimately what I feel, is that by not removing the Tories, through an unwillingness to participate in the “masquerade of democracy”, I was implicitly expecting the most vulnerable people in society to pay the price on my behalf while I pondered alternatives in luxury’. Ultimately, Brand concluded that whilst it was a poor choice, it would be easier to push for more meaningful change under a Labour-led government than a Conservative one.

Whilst many continued to criticise Brand, a greater proportion of commenters were now understanding of his opinion, even if they didn’t share it. Brand’s statement that ‘the gap between left and right is too small, but millions of people live or die in that gap’ reminded me of plenty of comments I’d seen from undecided left-wing voters who ultimately, begrudgingly, decided to vote Labour.

The election did not go the way that Brand wanted. This caused him to reflect on the endorsement, but also more broadly on his power compared to that of the Tory press, lamenting that ‘the old media, the establishment, is a powerful thing’. His regret was not so much endorsing Miliband, but that his endorsement seemingly made no difference. It may be true that Brand overestimated his influence or, even more likely, miscalculated his audience; of those who follow him, who are British adults and who were registered, there may have been some potential non-voters or Green voters who could be convinced to grit their teeth and vote Labour, but without the ability to influence anyone thinking of voting Conservative this surely is not enough. But he should not be so quick to wave the white flag in his war with The Sun; as Amy Smith pointed out in our joint blog post, they were all too quick to claim victory in ‘the phony war between traditional and newer media’.

Despite many reporting Brand’s comments as his ‘resignation from politics’, whilst I doubt he’ll throw his weight behind a party again he made it clear that he would continue to back community campaigns, where Brand has already proven he can make a difference. In a way, Miliband and Labour not getting into office may be a dodged bullet for Brand, who will not have to spend the next 5 years responding to every Labour government cut, or the renewal of trident, with ‘but I didn’t fully back Labour’. Still, having spent 18 months defending their favourite radical comedian from criticism of his ‘anti-voting’ statements, some of his fans may not be quick to forget the outcome of #Milibrand.

From www.thenorthernecho.co.uk I am truly sorry.

From http://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk
I am truly sorry.

General Election 2015: High, lows, and moments of confusion

It’s hard to believe that the UK General Election campaign came to an end just seven days ago. Having finally recovered from pulling the all-nighter to end all all-nighters, it’s time to reflect on the campaign. Whilst there are plenty of serious debates to be had, Amy Smith and I felt we would try to make light (and a little sense of) some of the campaign’s more interesting events. Here is a little discussion of the campaign moments that made us smile, or shake our heads in collective confusion.

Milibrand

Ellen: When Miliband was pictured leaving Brand’s flat and the press speculated there could be an endorsement, I laughed and told everyone that would never happen. Then it did. Brand’s ‘anti-voting’ position was never as rigid as the press reported, and he’d always liked Miliband, but I was still blown away. I think this definitely had more potential to damage Brand than Miliband, whatever the press say. Many of Brand’s fans support the Green Party, and he’s much closer to them ideologically. For me, the most interesting thing about the whole episode is the debate over whether Miliband should have ‘gone to’ Brand. Does this demonstrate the trivialisation of elections, or a bold willingness to reach out to Brand’s nine million followers? Cameron called Brand a joke…well, even if it made no difference, at least it showed that Miliband can take a joke!

 Amy: I agree with you that the point of interest here is the debate about whether Miliband was right or wrong to go to Brand. It speaks to a larger tension between older and newer forms of social media and did spark some discussion in the press along these lines. Both sides seemed to accept that this was an attempt by Labour to reach that notoriously homogenous, disengaged group known as ‘the youth’ (note: they are not homogenous and disengaged). The argument seemed to be divided into whether Miliband was doing the right thing because he was, at least, making an attempt to reach the youth through Brand’s social media following, or whether attempting to reach the youth was a pointless exercise. Whatever the reality, The Sun has claimed victory in the phony war between traditional and newer media, clearly ignoring the nuances of intermedia dependency even as it is displayed on the very same webpage (see below).

Screenshot of sunnation.co.uk’s “Brand: People do listen to The Sun”

Screenshot of sunnation.co.uk’s “Brand: People do listen to The Sun”

Ed Miliband: sex symbol or North London geek?

 Amy: The press had something of a crisis over how to represent Ed Miliband. Was he the “North London geek”, as branded by Jeremy Paxman in the ‘Battle for Number 10’, unable to eat a bacon sandwich competently and hence unable to run the country competently? Or was he ladies’ man, with a “Very Tangled Love Life”? The Daily Mail article did it’s very best to perpetuate the latter, but it read like a very boring account of the relationship histories of most people in modern Britain. The alternate headline made up in the PhD office, “Man has relationships with women he meets at university and through mutual friends before marrying his wife”, seemed more accurate if less sensational.

 Ellen: Our headline is definitely better. The ‘North London geek’ thing particularly intrigued me. We definitely saw Miliband play up to the ‘geek’ label more afterwards, talking more about his favourite video games and baseball teams in interviews. Paxman definitely didn’t mean it as a compliment, Charlie Brooker even speculated that unnecessarily adding ‘North London’ was an anti-Semitic dig, but Miliband tried to reclaim the geek label and use it to his advantage. I think that this was probably the right move; better to admit to having obscure interests than to forget which football team you ‘support’.

 Joey Essex

 Ellen:  Joey Essex interviewed Miliband, Clegg and Farage for his ITV2 special ‘Educating Joey Essex: General Election, What Are You Sayin?!’ He didn’t vote in 2010, and was on a mission to learn more about politics so that he could this time. Whilst the programme was (of course) pretty silly, the ability of some of Essex’s interviewees to relate to him demonstrated positive qualities in them. Anyone who knows Joey’s history must’ve felt a little ‘emosh’ seeing Nick Clegg talking to him about improving mental health care.

Meeting ‘ordinary celebrities’ is becoming yet another proxy for meeting ‘ordinary voters’, but I still wish Cameron had become involved. Joey did vote, after going to the wrong polling station, but we don’t know who for. I’d love to know if he got confused that Miliband, Farage and ‘Nick Legg’ weren’t actually on the ballot papers. Joey Essex general election pundit, Amy, what are YOU sayin’?

Amy: Well, where to begin? Essex’s programme naturally drew a lot of media attention and was much discussed on social media. It fits the trope of engaging ‘the youth’, although perhaps targeting a different demographic to that of the Brand interviews (ergo, they are not one homogenous group). It therefore helped to perpetuate ‘the engagement of young people in politics’ as a narrative throughout the campaign. Perhaps because of this, most parties wanted to become involved with his investigations, and took his slip-ups in good humour (the Lib Dems changing their website to feature the ‘Liberal Democats’ was a personal highlight). And who knows, maybe Essex’s programme did help some to understand the election and decide who to vote for. I think there’s probably a thesis in that, Ellen…

 #Milifandom (and #Cameronettes?)

Ellen: Whilst I feel like some of the photoshopped images of Ed Miliband’s face on semi-naked models will haunt my dreams forever, #Milifandom raised some interesting questions about participation. I was happy to see its founder, Abby, hitting back at journalists who saw her enthusiasm as childish, arguing that she had started #Milifandom as a response to media attacks on Miliband. I hope that she and other Milifans haven’t become totally despondent about politics before they can even vote.

Amy: I was overjoyed at the emergence of #Milifandom. After all the talk of youth participation here were some youth’s actually participating. Using a social media platform to express not only love but reasoned arguments for supporting Ed Miliband, it turned out that they were both knowledgeable and passionate. Obviously, there were some sceptics, with fandoms usually associated with 1D-obsessed teenage girls. Nevertheless, in #Milifandom we saw many of the traits that the old guard lament as lost in young people, and the wonderful thing was that it was organically created in a new media logic understood by its core audience and mistrusted by older generations. A timeless recipe really.

I was confused at the emergence of #Cameronettes. The Telegraph tried to clear it up, but in fact made me more concerned. Was it created by CCHQ, a teenage girl, a twenty-something male student, or a twenty-something male student masquerading as teenage girl? I stopped collecting data on this quite quickly basically because I couldn’t cope.

The ‘biased’ BBC

Amy: This also had me confused consistently. In my collection of data from Twitter and Facebook, I alternately learned that the BBC was left-wing/right-wing (delete as appropriate) and it was made clear that the Beeb was not giving enough airtime to UKIP, the Conservatives, UKIP, Labour, or UKIP. Even their debate audiences, as Nigel Farage brought to our attention, seemed to be unfairly weighted. Yet, the BBC is heavily regulated to ensure it gives even coverage to all parties, based on their size, and – as I found out by talking to their journalists – they have to produce graphs at the end of every week to prove it. So they are at least technically unbiased, then. Problem-solved. I must also give special mention to BBC Breakfast’s election coverage involving the ‘Travelling Sofa’ and the ‘Steph-o-meter’™, which kept me amused during many an early start. Kudos, Breakfast team.

Ellen: The BBC definitely cannot win. For the Conservatives, accusing the BBC of bias is a win-win, undermining negative coverage of them but possibly more importantly undermining the authority of the BBC itself. This is crucial when you plan to appoint a culture secretary who thinks that the license fee is ‘unsustainable’. As for UKIP, for all the involvement of comedians in this campaign its funniest moment was definitely still Farage attacking the audience at the Challengers’ Debate. How not to win people over 101.

The “selfie election”. Or was it the “social media election”?

Amy: Thesis-wise I was absolutely thrilled the media began to give various monikers to the election – it fits right in with my introductory chapter. However, both of the prominent ones given above are questionable. No-one can argue that selfies were not in abundance, but calling this campaign the “selfie election” refers to a derivative of a specific use of media, rather than having campaign activities aligned to a media platform, such as in “the television election” or “the internet election”. The “social media election” does do this, and certainly social media use by politicians, journalists and voters alike was central throughout the campaign. Yet in the aftermath of the vote, left-wing commentators considered that their existence within the social media bubble had led them to believe the outcome of election would be more favourable for them. It clearly wasn’t, so perhaps “the social media” election is somewhat of a misnomer, in terms of the medium’s impact on outcome.

Ellen: I agree. Social media use during campaigns is now obviously necessary, how out of touch would you look if you didn’t use it, but I don’t think it will ever be sufficient to lead a party to victory. Ed Miliband started using Instagram last September, much to the amusement of the press, and it became its own little fascinating bubble of Milifandom before #Milifandom was even a thing. Clearly though, David Cameron’s lack of Instagram, or a selfie with Joey Essex or a bride-to-be and her hens, wasn’t a barrier to electoral success.

And finally, Al Murray…

Al Murray

Al Murray reacts to Nigel Farage’s loss at the South Thanet count.

The Celebrity Election So Far

Before the campaign began, I was interested to see which celebrities would endorse political parties, but I speculated that celebrity involvement in the campaign would go beyond endorsements. It’s fair to say that nine days into the official campaign period, we’ve already seen things I never would have predicted. Who knew we’d have seen more of Joey Essex than we have of some party leaders, and that consequently John Humphreys would be taught the meaning of ‘reem’ on The Today Programme. Let’s take a brief look at the different ways celebrities have formed part of campaign coverage so far.

Martin Freeman’s Choice

          On day one of the official campaign Labour got straight in with an impressive celebrity endorsement, uploading their party political broadcast ‘The Choice’, featuring Martin Freeman (and narrated by David Tennant). Freeman is, of course, the star of the multi-billion grossing Hobbit films and co-star of BBC series Sherlock, which has a huge, and hugely dedicated, fandom. LabourList claim that the video was watched online over a million times in two days, almost 13 times as many views as the Conservative PPB received.[1]

          However, the key to a successful celebrity endorsement is perceived authenticity, which brings problems. The first thing I did after watching the PPB was type ‘Martin Freeman tax’ into Google. Sure enough, within an hour of the PPB being shared on Labour’s social media, the right-wing media backlash had begun. Guido Fawkes was the first to use old stories about Freeman’s partner and Sherlock co-star Amanda Abbington to discredit him.[2] Abbington was declared bankrupt in 2013 after failing to pay a £120,000 tax bill. This, along with the couple’s wealth and their son’s private education, was used to paint Freeman as a champagne socialist who lacks credibility.

          Abbington only made this worse by voicing her support for Freeman on Twitter through sweary anti-Tory hashtags. Whilst she swiftly deleted her #FuckTheTories tweet, the criticism she received overshadowed her attempts to deny claims that she’s a tax dodger and explain that she had now paid all she owed. Fortunately for Freeman, he’s #NotOnTwitter.

           This story now appears to have died down, and Labour have continued to share the PPB on social media in spite of the allegations. Interestingly, most of the criticism of the broadcast I’ve heard has been based on the content, not on the delivery. Viewers on Channel 4’s Gogglebox repeated objections I’d already noticed to Freeman’s repeated use of the word ‘guarantee’ to set out Labour’s promises on the NHS. Ed Miliband has repeatedly said that he wants to be the first leader ‘to under-promise and over-deliver’ – he may need to add to this an avoidance of the word ‘guarantee’, as this seems to generate more suspicion than it does trust. Miliband might be better off using the emphasis Martin Freeman’s video placed on the differing values of the two main parties, at a time when many are struggling to spot the difference.

Eddie Izzard tours the marginals

          Long-time Labour supporter Eddie Izzard’s assistance has taken a different form. As well as appearing at a party rally in Warrington, along with Ben Elton (who criticised Myleene Klass’ comments about the mansion tax) and Coronation Street’s Sally Lindsay, Izzard has been out campaigning alongside Labour candidates in marginal constituencies. So far he’s been out and about in Redditch, Halesowen, Runcorn and Swindon, and given this is the man who ran 43 marathons in 51 days, I don’t doubt he’ll be campaigning in as many marginal seats as possible over the next 29 days.

            By lending his support to individual candidates and their local campaigns as well as the national party, Izzard is taking a different approach. Local news coverage in the seats he’s been to so far has been positive; after years of touring he seems to have local knowledge wherever he goes. He also attracts attention on the campaign trail because of his intention to run for Mayor of London or become an MP in the future, which gives him an added sincerity (or at least, saves him from the cries of hypocrisy thrown at Russell Brand).

Politicising Joey Essex

          Outside of endorsements, the most visible celebrity face of the campaign so far undoubtedly belongs to Joey Essex. I won’t say too much about him now, as I’m sure there’ll be much more to say after Educating Joey Essex: General Election, What Are You Saying?! is shown on ITV2. Joey’s been going around interviewing party leaders for this show. He’s already spoken to Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, and he’s got David Cameron and Nigel Farage firmly in his sights. The Lib Dems certainly attracted more attention than they would otherwise when Essex came to their press conference and asked why they had a weird name. In honour of Joey’s attention grabbing mistake, the Lib Dem website briefly showed a new ‘Liberal Democats’ logo. Essex also appeared on BBC This Week following the 7-way leaders’ debate, battling with Molly the dog to be the most likable guest.

Image from metro.co.uk

Image from metro.co.uk

Image from independent.co.uk

Image from independent.co.uk

           Party leaders’ willingness to talk to Essex, who famously didn’t know who the Prime Minister was, has attracted debate over whether this represents dumbing down, or potential for engagement. Should we be listening to Joey Essex at election time (or ever)? Owen Jones, who has also spoken to Essex for his upcoming ITV2 special, dismissed criticism of his involvement as ‘snotty’, and argued that he ‘could just try and reach people who only read The Guardian or watch Question Time. But I don’t want to do that – I want to reach people outside the political bubble, who are otherwise disengaged’.[3] I’m looking forward to watching his election special to see what party leaders were willing to say to him; Nick Clegg was pretty frank with Essex about the fact that he’s not going to be the next Prime Minister.

          The Sun’s front page featuring Essex and former The Only Way is Essex co-star Amy Childs demonstrates that it is not only politicians who can use celebrities to push their agenda, media organisations can too. Essex’s comments to The Sun weren’t controversial; he just doesn’t like the ‘childish’ behaviour of MPs and wants them to stop shouting at each other. I can’t help but wonder if this is why Amy Childs was also called on to give her opinion, which was far more contentious and in line with The Sun’s viewpoint. Childs slammed Labour’s proposal of a mansion tax, and criticised her own aunt for having nine children and living on benefits. This is described by The Sun as ‘highlighting the concerns felt by millions of hard-working families’, and Brentwood MP Eric Pickles is quoted saying ‘Amy is completely correct when she says a tough stand must be taken against benefit cheats’.

Sun front page TOWIE The campaign still to come

          I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more of Joey Essex and Eddie Izzard, and I’ll be interested to see if Martin Freeman features any further in Labour’s campaign in spite of the criticism. It will be interesting to see whether the Conservatives can bag a significant celebrity endorsement. David Cameron isn’t shying away from celebrity interviews (he graced the cover of Heat magazine last week), and Samantha Cameron is doing her bit, but so far all I’ve seen is Sol Campbell on the campaign trail, and he hasn’t been attracting much attention beyond Twitter.

          Finally, much as Eddie Izzard has been looking fierce in heels and Labour red lipstick, I’ll be looking out for whether the celebrity election continues to be a male-dominated game. Whilst Sally Lindsay supported Labour in Warrington, and Amy Childs, Myleene Klass and Cheryl F-V have had their mansion tax comments used to support or contest Labour party policy, attention has been almost entirely devoted to male celebrities on the campaign trail.

And yes, thanks to Joey Essex, John Humphreys really did learn some new slang.

[1] http://labourlist.org/2015/04/labour-winning-web-wars-as-over-a-million-watch-martin-freeman-election-ad-online/

[2] http://order-order.com/2015/03/30/tax-dodge-shame-of-labour-election-star/#_@/lL1gL84CwtXQ9A [3] https://www.facebook.com/owenjones84/posts/808206602606187

Can a TV presenter persuade young people to vote? Thoughts on None of the Above by Rick Edwards

Being interested in celebrity politics, I was excited to see another book about politics penned by a celebrity. Rick Edwards believes everybody should vote and that those who don’t are not lazy but, particularly in the case of young people, lacking the information they need to feel confident enough to make a choice.

   Several people have asked me who Rick Edwards is, but none of these have been under 30 and British. He’s a familiar face to the T4 generation. Edwards is a TV presenter in his mid-thirties with a science degree from Cambridge. His decision to write a book aimed at young people about British politics and the upcoming election is not as random as it may seem. Whilst he is best known for fronting E4’s Tool Academy (Google with caution) he currently presents BBC3’s Free Speech, where an audience aged 16-34 discuss political issues and put questions to politicians. The most recent episode saw Ed Miliband in the hot seat, as part of a series to help viewers decide how to vote, and he did pretty well.

Image from Amazon.co.uk

Image from Amazon.co.uk

Edwards was inspired to write None of the above by the questions he’s been asked whilst presenting Free Speech. In the introduction, he describes being told by teenagers that they didn’t feel that they knew enough about politics, parties or the issues to be able to vote, and being asked where they could get information. He couldn’t answer. The aim of the book is to encourage a ‘massive turnout’ in May, as Edwards believes that ‘the strength of our democracy is hugely improved when everyone has their say in choosing the government’.[1]

The book’s title refers to Edwards’ belief that there should be a ‘none of the above’ box on ballot papers. Until this happens, he suggests that those who wish to make their voice heard but cannot support any of the candidates on offer spoil their ballots. Naturally, the title has led to misrepresentation, with Vice going with the headline ‘TV Presenter Rick Edwards Wants You to Vote for ‘None of the Above’ at the UK General Election’. That’s not the case. He merely wants us to vote, and to have the option to vote for ‘none of the above’ if we want. Edwards probably knew his intentions would be questioned, as in his chapter on celebrity involvement in politics he describes how Russell Brand’s comments on voting have been misrepresented. Rather than going down the tabloid Brand-bashing route, Edwards argues that whilst he disagrees with Brand on voting he thinks that he has encouraged political debate and, through his involvement in the New Era Estate campaign, demonstrated that political engagement goes beyond voting.

    Edwards has certainly achieved his aim to provide information. Each chapter details the key debates and party positions over a policy area, such as the NHS, devolution, and inequality. There are also chapters on social media and politics, political leadership, and alternative voting systems and forms of democracy. Edwards does a good job of describing complex issues in a way that is detailed but also accessible; there is a large glossary at the back describing everything from abstention to zero-hour contracts. Alongside this policy detail, Edwards encourages readers to consider their broader beliefs about democracy and the role of the government, and parties to talk more about their ideological differences.

   Of course, one of the flaws of the book is that election manifestos have not yet been launched, and so cannot be included. But Edwards does a good job nonetheless of sketching out the similarities and differences (which do, he convincingly argues, exist) between the parties on a broad range of important issues. At the end of each chapter, he urges people to vote if they cares about these issues and, if he’s succeeded, hopefully readers will want to read the manifestos and have a better understanding of the issues (and jargon) they contain.

    This was a difficult task. Writing a book about voting without encouraging people to vote for a specific party. Writing a book that encourages voting without giving the impression that the electoral system doesn’t need to change. The limited personal opinion is unusual for a book written by a celebrity, though Edwards doesn’t always keep his views to himself. His refusal to engage with climate change deniers makes it unlikely he’s a secret UKIP supporter.

    At times, to a cynic like me, his belief in the power of voting feels a little over-stretched. The argument that if we all vote we’ll get who we want in parliament, as if there would no longer be wasted votes, is a little optimistic. But Edwards does do a good job of both encouraging people to vote whilst also advocating reform of the political system which would give more power to the people. In addition to the none of the above option, he discusses alternative electoral systems, open primaries, and reform of party funding. His concern about low turnout amongst young people is genuine, and his argument that this allows government to ignore young people’s issues convincing.

      Ultimately, it will be interesting to see whether a book that talks about political issues and democracy in Britain sells. Anyone else who’s been ‘the friend who knows about politics’ who gets inundated with questions at election time knows that there is a call for it. I doubt Rick Edwards will get his wish for a ‘none of the above’ box on the ballot paper any time soon, but in the meantime maybe he can persuade some people that their vote matters.

[1] Rick Edwards (2015), None Of The Above. Kindle location 87.

[2] Edwin Smith (2015), ‘TV Presenter wants you to Vote for ‘None of the Above’ at the UK General Election’, Vice, (online) March 11. Available at: http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/rick-edwards-none-of-the-above-interview-666