Thursday, March 29, 2007

Let's Go See: 18 Doughty Street

[Originally published in Total Spec magazine, February 2007]

Welcome to Doughty Street: Politics on an internet rocket

In the depths of London's Bloomsbury, to the north of Chancery Lane, lies Doughty Street. It's one of those roads most of us can't imagine living on without an unlikely change of career, large inheritance or lucky lottery ticket, lined as it is with stately Georgian terraces which stretch out symmetrically into the distance. There are, naturally, iron railings all over the place and at number 48 sits Charles Dickens's only surviving London home, now a museum.

I wander further up the street and get to number 18. It's a bit hidden by scaffolding, but behind that imposing black door something rather interesting is going on. For, over the last few months, 18 Doughty Street has not just been an address, or a number on a door: it's the name of an internet-only political TV channel. Go to their website between 7pm to 12am on Mondays to Thursdays and you can watch a range of live and pre-recorded discussion programmes about everything politics. Launched in October last year, it's financed by YouGov founder Stephan Shakespeare and run by a small group of intrepid right-of-centre politicos who seem to be making the whole thing up as they go along.

But for what is, compared to the likes of the BBC or Channel 4, a low-key operation, the channel has been known to get in some prestigious guests, albeit of the kind not so often seen in the mainstream media. The launch show featured an exclusive interview with Australian PM John Howard, followed by a discussion with Ian Duncan Smith and Australian High Commissioner Richard Altston. Since then, 18 Doughty Street has had visits from Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, UKIP leader Nigel Farage, Conservative Party Chairman Francis Maude, MPs Mark Oaten, Ann Widdecombe, Stephen Twigg, and so on.

Not everything will be to everyone's taste - "I've never really watched [news discussion programme] Up Front," admits one guest, and "I avoid the tax programme – it's a kind of Tory tic," says one of the channel's presenters - but watch an evening of programmes and you get the impression that the whole point of 18 Doughty Street is that all opinions are welcome. Although there are no pretensions of impartiality (this is internet TV, so it's not regulated by Ofcom), the station is aiming to be about discussion, not indoctrination. "We're not seeking to ram propaganda down people's throats, we want to make people think," says one of the channel's lynchpins, Iain Dale.

Dale's background shows him to be something of a jack of all trades, as long as the trades in question involve politics (and often Conservatism). As well as numerous appearances on television and radio as a pundit, he founded political bookshop and publishers Politicos, has edited 14 books on politics, and his rather excellent blog is one of the most popular of its kind in the UK. There's also a few things he's probably less keen to shout about: standing in the May 2005 general election and losing to Lib Dem; working as David Davies's chief of staff in the MP's unsuccessful Conservative Party leadership campaign. But, hey, that's politics, right?

Now Dale is one of the four directors of 18 Doughty Street; the others being Stephan Shakespeare, Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome website and the Conservative Christian Fellowship, and Donal Blaney, who is CEO of the Young Britons' Foundation. If that wasn't enough, Dale is, unofficially, the channel's chief presenter, garnering more air-time than anyone else (he's trying to cut down: "from a viewer's point of view, you want more variety than that," he says). He's new to presenting – "I absolutely love it" – but wasn't the only one who's had to learn the ropes.

"None of us had been involved in television before and we've got no professional production staff," he says. There were, he adds, two people on the staff who had worked on TV documentaries, and the team, with their scant knowledge, found themselves having to bow to their whims. This was not good. "We kept coming up with ideas, and they'd come up with 20 reasons why we couldn't do them, which proved to be very wearing," he says. "Eventually we got rid of both of them." Free from the shackles of convention, they were free to experiment.

The channel's willingness to try to do things differently from the traditional media outlets is one of its main selling points. But in its current incarnation, a factor that seems even most integral to its identity is the freedom of time. Dale cites the channel's coverage of the US mid-terms as a key example: they broadcast for six hours starting at 8pm and analysing the exit polls before the BBC did (where coverage started at 12am). Oh, and this was only three weeks after Doughty Street had launched.

The looseness of time constraints is a crucial factor in day-to-day programming too: "If we have a politician on to be interviewed for an hour, they can't just come out with a two-minute soundbite, because they've got to fill 58 more minutes," says Dale. "In that time, they're bound to say something that’s different from what they'd say in a three-minute interview on the Today programme."

"In the mainstream media you can't even have a half-hour discussion on one subject with one person because they think their audiences have got the attention span of a flea," he adds. "The number of times you hear an interviewer saying on Radio 4, "I'm sorry, but that's all we've got time for," just as the interview has got going – it's incredibly frustrating."

It's this willingness to give politicians and pundits time to breathe that suggests the channel is about taking politics seriously – backed up by their slogan "Politics for adults". But because of the political position of the founders, another slogan which has inevitably come their way is the no less snappy "Tory TV". Dale disputes that Doughty Street is a centre-right propaganda tool, mentioning the left-of-centre guests who have appeared and adding that the Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs who have been interviewed are perfectly comfortable with the station's stance. However, he doesn't deny that when interviewing someone, he won't pretend to be impartial or shy away from getting his own views across.

One regular show on the schedule is Claire Fox News, which aims to look at "what's really going on behind the headlines". Fox is now head of think tank the Institute of Ideas (IoI), a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and once co-publisher of the now defunct Living Marxism magazine. In short, she's a long way from your traditional old-school Conservative. Did she have reservations about collaborating with Dale and co? "I've long since given up caring what people can work out by association," she says. "I'm much more interested in people listening to what I've got to say and what the people on my programme have got to say."

Fox says she doesn't see 18 Doughty Street as a challenge to conventional television, but does see a gap in the market left by broadcasters trying to sidestep serious discussion. "There is a tendency in the media to reduce things to a black and white argument," she says. "There's an obsession in contemporary media circles, particularly in relation to current affairs and politics, with trying to sex it up using rather superficial tricks, whereas I think these issues are interesting enough in themselves – they should be trying to make things intellectually sexy, by allowing open discussion."

No stranger to controversy, Fox relishes the chance to get some more leftfield opinions out there. "In the mainstream media if you have a discussion on, say, environmentalism and you aim for impartiality by inviting all three main parties, they'd actually all say that they're greens. Because of that, there's no longer any sense of that debate really occurring. For a more impartial approach, I try to look around for people who are saying different things."

Dale agrees that one of the channel's plus points is the editorial freedom which allows it to bring together unlikely combinations of guests. "We had John Redwood and Andrew McKinley, a left-wing Labour MP on recently," he says. "It's a combination that most programmes wouldn't even think of having. But it was fantastic, they both found that they actually agreed on a lot of things, which you would never have expected."

***

Step inside 18 Doughty Street itself, and, passing a brightly-lit brand new office on the left, you're faced with flaking and cracked pink-tinted paperless walls, and some rickety-looking stairs heading upwards to some rooms which look like they've only just been built, and which wouldn't look out of place in a haunted house. Dale apologies – "the builders are in" – and, not unreasonably, seems keen to hurry us through. We head downstairs, past an unlit "on air" light, and suddenly, we're in what feels more like the real 18 Doughty Street – the studio.

Under hot bright lights, five cameras surround a Good Morning-like pair of sofas, a brown globe, a shelf of political biographies. On one of the tables, there's a laptop, with the 18 Doughty Street logo printed out on A4 and sellotaped to the back. It's a funny combination of the technological and the makeshift, and seems to aptly symbolise the whole operation.

That laptop, usually situated to the right of whoever's presenting that night, brings with it another interesting aspect of the channel. As well as viewers being able to comment on the programmes via the website, they can also add the channel to their Windows Messenger contacts, and so are able send their questions and viewpoints via instant message to presenters while they're live on air. It emphasises the democratic and conversational aspect of the channel and seems far more satisfying and instant than emailing or texting in.

"We may have a small audience, but it's a very interactive one," says Dale, who came up with the instant message idea in the studio, set it up himself, and announced the plan on air. Within a few minutes people had signed up. "If I dry up, there will always be something there that I can latch onto. You can always tell when you're doing something interesting, because that's when the orange message boxes start lighting up."

As interactivity goes, it sure beats 'pressing your red button now'. However, Claire Fox is not so convinced. "That's not an innovation for Doughty Street," she says. "Every time I turn on the BBC, they'll be saying 'we've got an email from Joe in Sunderland, he's got a great insight' or something. There's always a danger of that being patronising and trying to pretend that you connect."

"On the front page of the December issue of Time magazine, for their person of the year feature, they had a picture of a computer screen, which they did as a mirror. You look at it and you see yourself. It says 'You control the information age. Welcome to your world'. This is what's called an abdication of responsibility. It's absolutely ludicrous. I think that's one of the ways people fetishise new media - as bringing democratisation."

She's hit her flow now. "If Time can't give a lead in deciding on who the person of year is without overly flattering its readers by pretending it's us, there's something seriously wrong with the mainstream media. I don't want to emulate that kind of spineless, craven, chasing of the audience."

"I'm not opposed to audience interaction," she adds. "I just don't think that's what will make 18 Doughty Street successful. For me, it's a really stupid way of understanding what's important about an audience. Honouring an audience is giving them something that think about, that they're interested in, that challenges them."

Fair enough, but who is this audience, and why should they turn to 18 Doughty Street? "We're not catering for political geeks," says Dale. "We're catering for people who are fed up with the current affairs coverage on the BBC and other channels, which are being dumbed down to the extent where on Andrew Neil's programme on a Thursday night after Question Time, you have important issues being discussed with comedians. I'm sure comedians have views just as much as anyone, but to have a political programme where they don't have any politicians on seems utterly ridiculous to me."

"The aim, in the end, is to try and get people watching who aren't interested in politics at all, who are just put off it. At the moment, it is a small audience, we don't deny that, but we think as word travels about what we're trying to do, we really think that we've started something that could be quite powerful."

***

"Any gestures you want?" says Dale as he poses for the Total Spec photographer. "We're an on-demand service." Well, it's not quite there yet – at the time of writing, the channel still relies heavily on its audience tuning in to watch programmes streaming live, rather than choosing when to view a la YouTube. But there should be a new website live by the time you read this, and Dale hopes that technology that allows viewers to watch internet video on their television sets will begin to take off in 2007. And if it does, that scaffolding outside 18 Doughty Street will be down in no time.

At 6.55pm we break off our chat; at 7pm, Dale has to do a live two-minute piece to camera introducing the night's programmes. He wanders off to get a crib sheet; a make-up girl appears from nowhere; he sits back on the sofa as she starts dabbing at his face. She finishes and starts adjusting the camera – it looks like she's the camerawoman as well. Dale glances at the sheet of paper, is counted in, looks up, and begins to reel off the evening's programming. The week's viewing has begun.

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