There are a few things about Twitter that public figures need to learn: it is fast, unforgiving and it feeds off other media. What might have been a relatively obscure cause for embarrassment in political circles a decade ago is now disseminated and available across the nation, and beyond – in minutes.
These days, a faux pas becomes the biggest story of the day as soon as it is uttered. Traditional media sources publish their material online and the fun stuff goes viral on social media. That content then becomes the story as the traditional media reports on the Twitterstorms – which of course only whips up more of a frenzy.
This is exactly what has happened to Green Party leader Natalie Bennett following her interview on LBC radio with Nick Ferrari. Bennett went on air to discuss her party’s position on a range of issues, including housing. She announced plans to build 500,000 new social rent homes with funding of £60,000 for each home. But she became distinctly flustered when questioned about how much the whole project would cost.
It certainly wasn’t the most impressive political performance – a pretty unedifying aural spectacle from either perspective.
One might certainly suppose that Bennett could have foreseen what would happen if she turned up poorly prepared and indeed poorly with a cold on Ferrari’s show. She might have listened to what the presenter did to Nigel Farage the time he sprung a question on him about the racist and homophobic language used by a recently-ditched UKIP candidate. Caught off guard, Farage ended up causing some controversy by defending the use of such terms on the grounds that people who live in council houses simply talk like that.
This should have been useful listening for Bennett, especially as she was planning to talk about council housing herself (albeit, it appeared, without much emphasis on the planning).
Bennett had already given an unremarkable interview on The Andrew Neil Show in January. This appearance was far from disastrous but her inability to say definitively whether or not the Greens would vote for or against the renewal of the Trident missile system in a coalition government (even though opposition to Trident is a core plank of Green policy) offered something of a taste of the meltdown of factual uncertainty to come.
It would be both chauvinistic and politically biased to suggest that Ferrari should not have turned the full force of his often brilliant and forensic adversarial interviewing skills upon Bennett – although in this case one wonders whether those skills might have gone somewhat to waste.
Ferrari’s increasing frustration through the course of the interview (which starts off a tad bland, turns a bit blah and just gets worse and worse) may be due in part to the fact that he had probably prepared for the interview rather more rigorously than his subject appeared to have done.
He doesn’t sound so much like a hectoring proto-Paxman as an interviewer almost disbelieving in their exasperation: “I don’t think you know, do you? You don’t know … You don’t actually know much this is going to cost, do you? Do you think you might perhaps have genned up on this a little bit more?”
Ferrari comes across as annoyed and the experience of listening to the interview is uncomfortable rather than particularly amusing. The Twitterati have nevertheless managed to extract a mass of Schadenfreude from hearing this well-meaning politician squirm. There is just about room to scoff in 140 characters, but not much to reflect.
It’s unclear why Bennett’s experience should cause anyone such pleasure. The Greens are hardly rivalling UKIP for the crown as the Marmite party of the 2015 election. It’s not, is it, that anyone out there actually hates the Greens?
But what’s perhaps most disappointing in this era of social media armchair auditors (the people so good at pulling up the Tories for using foreign landscapes in their campaign posters or North Korea for photoshopping military propaganda images) is that no one has yet pointed out that Ferrari himself doesn’t leave the scene of slaughter entirely unscathed.
In a week that saw Conservative politician Malcolm Rifkind garnering public disapprobation for suggesting that his £67,000 salary does not represent an appropriate reward for his level of skills, it is perhaps disappointing that the eagle-eyed and owl-eared scrutineers of the social media sphere do not appear as yet to have picked up on Nick Ferrari’s declaration that the £60,000 which Natalie Bennett would wish to spend on each council home (no doubt hoping for some decent economies of scale in the deal) would not afford the construction of “much more than a large conservatory”.
There are plenty of people in less affluent parts of Britain whose homes (which are not necessarily houses, replete with conservatories or otherwise) would not be valued, in terms of the cost of land and construction, significantly higher than Bennett’s £60,000. Those people might be somewhat perplexed by a London radio show host’s suggestion that their property is worth no more than a conservatory. Ferrari’s comment only serves to underline the concerns of those appalled by the increasing disparities of wealth in the UK.
The UK’s economic divide widens and widens. The super-rich spend their wads of cash on palatial conservatories, while Bennett cannot afford her council homes. But 140 characters is rarely enough to encompass such massive debates.