Digital politics is different

[As ever, this is also on the BBC News website, and the Modern Liberty site has lots of links and content to delight and entertain…]

In November 1988 Stuart Weir, at the time editor of the New Statesman,  published a special edition of the magazine asking those concerned with the health of British democracy to stand up and be counted.  The proposal, which he called ‘Charter 88’, called for a new constitutional settlement, one which would guarantee civil liberties and the rule of law.

Shortly afterwards 348 people paid for and signed an advert in The Guardian newspaper asking people to offer support, and a year later an organisation called Charter 88 was founded to take the campaign forward, with Anthony Barnett as its first Director.

The Charter was eventually signed by over 85,000 people, including me, and the organisation it inspired continues to campaign for democracy, rights and freedoms as Unlock Democracy.

It would be fascinating to trace the history of this important movement, and perhaps watch some of the barnstorming speeches that took place at its many public meetings over the years, but there seem to be no recordings and few accessible records of what happened in the early days.

Google’s archive search of old newspapers will sell me a scan of a 1988 article from the Miami Herald that talks about Charter 88 for only $2.95, but I can find no public scans of the original advertisement and there are no video or even audio recordings of any meetings, while the Wikipedia entry for Charter 88 is flagged ‘This article needs additional citations for verification’.

There’s a book, published to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the original Charter 88, but that is only available to order as a printed volume and Amazon won’t let me search inside it.

Since I am fortunate enough to have access to the British Library and even to the offices of the New Statesman, where I’m an occasional contributor, I could hunt down the original 1988 edition if I really wanted to and see just how the case was argued.

As I’m a friend of Anthony Barnett’s I could ask him if he has any old material I could look at, and if I was really keen I could offer to digitise it and put it online for him, but I probably won’t because time is short and building digital archives takes a lot of time and effort.

My interest in Charter 88’s history came about because yesterday I was one of over a thousand people who attended the Convention on Modern Liberty at the Institute of Education in London’s Bloomsbury district, organised by that same Anthony Barnett and journalist Henry Porter.

It brought together dozens of different organisations and hundreds of speakers in seven cities across the UK, beginning with a passionate defence of our civil liberties from Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti and finishing with an informal debate that included blogger Cory Doctorow and songwriters Billy Bragg and Feargal Sharkey.

Although there were many horror stories about the repressive actions of the representatives of the British state there was also significant optimism and a sense that things could be changed if we choose to change them.

And unlike the early Charter 88 meetings, some of which took place in the same lecture hall I was sitting in, every moment of the convention was being recorded and documented in detail.

The plenaries and panel sessions were being filmed and webcast live, with transcripts taken and posted online as soon as possible after the words were spoken, while the wireless network throughout the building enabled me and many others present to twitter about what we were doing.

Large number of photographs were uploaded to Flickr, Moblog, Twitpic (and NOT Tweetpic as I originally wrote!) and other photo-sharing sites, and as well as coverage in the obvious media outlets like the Times and the BBC there are already dozens of blog postings, some from those who were there, some from those who participated online.

The interaction and engagement that these services facilitate was a vital part of the convention, tying together the eight separate meetings with video feeds and online debate and turning them into one nationwide event.  The online presence also meant that many people who could not be there were able to participate, using the two-way nature of the web to feed back into the real-world meetings and not simply sitting there are observers of a broadcast video feed.

But the real significance may come in six months, a year or even five years, when the issues the convention raised form the basis of political campaigns, government policy or even a new Bill of Rights for the UK.  Charter 88 grew up before we had moved into the digital age and what little was recorded remains analogue, offline and inaccessible.

Yesterday’s event was self-documenting,  and much of what happened left traces online, traces which will be visible to anyone who wants to know what happened.  Ben Goldacre’s jokes, David Davis’ call for action and Philip Pullman’s eloquent and moving condemnation of a government that refuses to believe in the British people will be there, to be watched, read, linked to and commented upon over the coming months, and this in itself will help to strengthen and build the movement that seems likely to emerge from the Convention.

Of course, it also means that the authorities will have no problems tracking down who was there or what they said, but transparency and sharing always carry the risk of undesirable side-effects.

[Disclosure: I was an advisor on online strategy to the Convention organising team]

Bill’s Links
Charter 88:
The Original Charter 88:
BBC report on Convention:
Convention on Modern Liberty:
Twitter coverage:
Blog coverage from John Naughton and from Richard Rothwell and Iain Dale: