Cenk Uygur on Brits, Bachmann and Barak…

Cenk Uygur is an unlikely global celebrity. Born in Turkey and raised in the US, the trained lawyer started broadcasting a satellite radio talk show called The Young Turks in 2002. By 2005, the format had developed into an online broadcast distributed on YouTube, from where it has grown to become one of the best known and most viewed offerings on the web. It currently boasts around 30 million views each month, and has received more than 500 million views in total since launch.

“I knew we had a following,” Uygur tells The Huffington Post UK, “when I got off the underground in London and heard someone shout ‘Cenk – what are you doing here?’ I’d only been in the country about an hour.”

Yet notoriety is something the 41-year-old has increasingly had to deal with. Last year, the success of Uygur’s online show caught the attention of cable news channel MSNBC, who offered the LA resident a contract to host their coveted 6pm slot. He accepted, though it proved only a brief association. After six months, Uygur was offered a lower profile time, which he refused, having been told his tone was not to the liking of executives in Washington.

Uygur’s combative style, developed for the web generation, apparently didn’t sit well with the cable news audience. So, he moved back to TYT (though he never actually left) and is now looking to expand.

“The UK is our third largest territory behind the US and Canada,” he says. “It would be great to take the show there. Maybe in the future we can expand to set up Young Turks in different regions, and the UK would definitely be a prime contender to do that. Because of the show’s global popularity, we are definitely looking to give it more of an international feel.”

Using YouTube, alongside live web streaming, has given Uygur and his fellow Turks an almost global reach.

“That’s the great thing about being online,” he says. “If you look at shows like John Stewart and The Colbert Report, they’re restricted to a channel. We are not.”

Every day, more than a million people visit the TYT channel on YouTube, for their daily fix of progressive political discourse, entrenching Cenk as a fixture in the US media landscape. And, in a country where newscasters wear their political leanings like an identity badge, Uygur is unashamedly to the left of the divide.

“I started The Young Turks as there needed to be a push back against Fox News and the other news sources, which only pushed the agenda of big corporations,” he says. “We didn’t sit down and have a meeting in which we determined the editorial or political line. We just try and present the news without all the bulls*it. The show is just a reflection of the people that make it.”

For Uygur, John Stewart, The Colbert Report, Air America on the radio, plus MSNBC’s increasingly progressive stance is all part of the same push back. “It is a fight to balance out the news so Americans aren’t just told one side of the story,” he says.

I enquire if, in the interest of balance, he ever invites conservatives on the show?

“We try and get conservatives on the show all the time,” he snaps back. “It’s great when they come on. I have nothing against conservative principles, however what’s preached by people like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News has absolutely nothing to do with conservatism.”

“You only have to look at subsidies for oil companies,” he continues, now in full flow. “These subsidies are sold by the right-wing media as an issue that fits well with conservative principles. Can there be anything less conservative than subsidies for oil companies? People like Limbaugh or companies like Fox News are paid by the corporations to push their agenda. They call it conservatism, but it’s just corporate propaganda.”

It’s the kind of vitriol that has won the Uygur fan and foe alike. It is also indicative of America’s increasingly polarised media, much of which has come to resemble two armed camps rather than members of the same profession.

It’s a situation not only certain to continue through to the 2012 election, but could well have a bearing on its outcome.

“Obama is in so much trouble right now,” says Uygur. “He’s got nine per cent unemployment… and that nine per cent is not going down anytime soon. Then there’s the downgrade of the country’s credit rating, following the ridiculous situation with the debt ceiling.”

In recent months, the TYT host has become increasingly critical of Obama and the current administration.

“If he was doing the right things, it wouldn’t be so bad,” he says, “but the President simply isn’t looking at the type of policies that will get the country out of its current mess. It”s just more tax cuts for the rich. I can honestly see Obama’s popularity figures dropping into the 30s.”

So you think Obama will lose, I ask?

“No – I’m not saying he will lose. The Republican Party could do him a favour and nominate some lunatic. That would give him a chance.”

The nomination process for the Republican Party, although underway, is far from yielding a definite candidate, with a recent CNN poll putting Ricky Perry, Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann as the leading candidates in that order, with Sarah Palin yet to declare.

“People are actually talking about Michelle Bachmann as a real candidate for the Republican nomination,” he says with exasperation. “Come on… Admittedly, her figures are good right now, but she is simply not a serious candidate. Mitt Romney is more likely as is Rick Perry. I’m surprised that Mike Huckabee has ruled himself out of the race. He would mobilise the evangelical vote and could portray himself as a populist. There’s a mood in the country right now for a populist candidate. I’m amazed he hasn’t jumped back in.”

“The run up to the election is going to be vicious,” he continues, barely drawing breath. “The Republicans have already started. The leak about Michelle Bachmann taking prescription drugs was unbelievable. I’m the last person who wants to see Bachmann in the White House, but for Republicans to leak the migraine information, questioning not only her mental health but also inferring that she was addicted to prescription drugs was unforgivable. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be that kind of election.”

Whatever happens, The Young Turks will no doubt be covering it, broadcasting their daily mix of the irreverent, the serious and the funny from their poky studio in downtown LA.

“We’d like to expand as the set is looking a bit cramped,” he says. “The set has been a good home as it’s very intimate but we’re in the process of moving very soon. Actually, I can’t confirm that right now… but we are.”

This first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

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How politicians should use social media

Organising a night out, poking your friends, catching up with a schoolmate you last saw in 1987 … Facebook has become a vital part of our social lives, but it could decide something a lot more important that whether you’re heading to the Dog and Duck tonight. It’s going to play a big part in who runs Britain. With an election happening in less than a month, politicians have woken up to the power of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. At stake are not only the keys to No 10, but – and more profoundly – how the Government engages with the people from here on in.

The general election on 6 May will mark the start of the campaigning season proper for parties, politicians and prospective parliamentary candidates. Much of the debate will take a traditional form, using door-knocking, posters and broadcasts. Yet in the last five years since the British electorate (or at least 61 per cent of them) took to the polls, the world has evolved beyond measure.

The development of social networking, alongside the unprecedented growth in online video content, added to an upsurge in broadband access – an increase of 28 per cent between 2006 and 2009 according to the Office of National Statistics – has transformed us into an increasingly cyber society, forcing politicians to adapt with varying degrees of success. Gordon Brown’s YouTube video on MPs’ expenses is unlikely to be remembered as a high water mark for the integration of politics and technology.

For anyone in public office, engaging in personalised interaction can be like dancing on a trap door. From America, Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s ill-advised tweet on Judge Sonia Sotomayor – “White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw” – stands as a clear warning.

Yet, for every ill-conceived tweet or detrimental status update, there have been myriad successes for politicians, campaigners and pressure groups hoping to make a mark. Writing recently in this paper, Kerry McCarthy, Britain’s Twitter Tsar, said that MPs tweet because it can “reveal the person behind the politician; their principles, their passions, their personality. It’s the authentic voice that comes through, of the MP and in aggregate, of the Party”. So there can be a political reward. It’s also, she suggests, “good fun”.

Since it launched in 2006, Facebook has matured from a tool for keeping in touch with friends to a powerful and highly effective way of grouping communities, offering a collective voice to anyone with an internet connection.

This was highlighted in January when Islam4UK, an offshoot of the banned Islamic group Al-Muhajiroun, was banned under counter-terrorism laws, following a Facebook campaign.

Grass roots campaigns are one thing. An election campaign is another. But if Westminster was slow on the uptake about social networks, the 2008 election of Barack Obama, founded on a campaign with a comprehensive online strategy, should have proved portentous.

Speaking recently on Radio 4, Thomas Gensemer, the mastermind behind Obama’s online campaign, said that the ideal is “an integrated strategy that includes third parties, such as Facebook and Twitter”, working alongside more established methods, such as door-to-door petitioning.

Many factors played a part in securing the White House for the Democrats in 2008. Still, $560m in online fundraising goes a long way, especially when allied to an enthusiastic support mobilised via the web.

For Richard Allen, a former Liberal Democratic politician now employed as the Director of EU policy at Facebook, the use of social networking by the Obama campaign made people feel more empowered. “An Obama supporter in the backwoods of Oklahoma, who would previously have found it difficult to do anything practical, could now get together with other supporters. This allowed them to take ownership of the campaign rather than passively waiting for someone else to tell them what to do. This dramatically extended the Democrats’ reach.”

Allen also believes having a single presidential candidate around which to orientate the campaign made it easier for US activists to engage with the electorate. “In the UK there’s a much more complex relationship between the parties and the voters. When you cross the ballot paper, you’re not crossing it for David Cameron, Gordon Brown or Nick Clegg. You’re crossing the ballot for whoever your local candidate is.”

Looking at the Facebook fan pages of the party leaders suggests the British electorate has been slow to embrace parliamentary politics via the site – so far. David Cameron leads with 17,500 followed by Gordon Brown (4,000) and Nick Clegg (3,500).

These figures will no doubt rise in the coming weeks (David Cameron has added 3,500 fans in the last two months). The official party pages on Facebook, however, are in good health – the Conservatives’ page is the most popular, boasting around 25,000 fans and plenty of daily updates.

At the constituency level, MPs such as Tom Watson, the Labour candidate for West Bromwich East, have been building an online community for years through blogs and, more recently, Twitter. However, the problem for MPs such as Watson is that online communities have no regional boundaries. As such, members of his online community may have absolutely no say in returning him to parliament next month. Still, more politicians of all stripes are turning to social networking as a way to communicate. Following the success of Tweet Congress in America, a British version launched in December 2008 offering access to tweets from politicians, as well as political commentators and news services. Called Tweetminster, the service aggregates Tweets from the political world.

A recent Tweetminster report focusing on political traffic makes for interesting reading. Collated throughout 2009, the document suggests that MPs, prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) and grass-roots supporters representing Labour are the most active on Twitter, with more followers than both the Conservative and the Liberal Democrats combined. But it also suggests that the Conservatives boast a greater reach, with official party posts receiving more mentions and retweets. In short, Labour supporters at the bottom are driving the Twitter conversation on the centre left, whilst official Conservative tweets from the top are driving the conversation from the centre right. Tweets and Retweets from the Liberal Democrats featured both grass roots and official traffic. Despite the surprisingly neutral conclusion of the research, the report still had Labour and Conservative supporters locking horns in the blogosphere over which party was the dominant force on Twitter. Such are the stakes.

According to Tweetminster co-founder Alberto Nardelli, “there is likely to be a significant rise in the number of candidates and MPs using Twitter in the run-up to the election. However, as it takes time to build a following and those that join late will struggle to find value in a short period of time.”

So those MPs not currently on Twitter may have missed the boat. Still, there are already large numbers on the site – 111 MPs and 226 candidates at the beginning of the year. What impact they will have on the election is difficult to quantify, especially as Twitter isn’t just an interaction between MPs and the electorate. Another important part of the equation is the traditional media, whether that’s newspapers, the BBC, Sky News or any other major news gatherer. While social networks may be able to set the agenda, it takes the force of traditional media to frame it.

For Nardelli, this is the key to how Twitter will influence the election. “More and more articles are using Twitter as a source, so it really depends on how traditional media interpret these stories.” And like any source, Tweets can be bent by the media to fit an agenda. In February, the Daily Mail ran a story suggesting that David Cameron had “ordered his party’s candidates to submit their online utterances [Tweets] for vetting”. According to Nardelli, Tory candidates had simply been asked to “be careful when discussing official Conservative policy”, a far cry from the “strict edicts” mentioned in the paper. The story was picked up by other papers and even received a mention on Newsnight.

So it’s the same cat and mouse game politicians have always played with the media, just using new tools. Still, the benefits seem to be outweighing the potential hazards, so much so that between January and March this year 16 MPs and 59 PPCs joined Twitter. That means nearly 19 per cent of parliament currently Tweets, a figure that should rise with the influx of current PPCs after the election.

Tweet Congress offers similar uptake figures for American politicians, yet Nardelli sees far more direct interaction between politicians and the electorate in Britain. “In the US lots of politicians have Twitter feeds but they tend to link to press releases or official blogs.” In short, you’re unlikely to find your local congressman sat at home trying to squeeze comment into 140 characters. In the UK, it generally is your local MP.

Before a Commons Liaison Committee, Gordon Brown recently spoke of broadening the franchise by lowering the voting age to include 16 and 17-year-olds, no doubt an olive branch to the Liberal Democrats, carrying overtures of electoral reform should there be a hung parliament after the election. It may also point towards a new attempt to engage with the younger demographic, mindful of their potentially significant voice harmonised by social networking. Yet it’s important to remember that these sites aren’t just playthings for listless teens. According to Facebook, the fastest growing demographic on the site is over 55-year-old women. Whatever the outcome in May, from here on in we’re all going to have a say.

This first appeared in The Independent. The original article can be found here.