Very interesting to hear today that Gordon Brown is to conduct a ‘Question Time style’ discussion forum with members of the general public via YouTube. Of course this isn’t the first time that there have been high profile users of the service, with both the Queen and The Archbishop of Canterbury using it to broadcast their Christmas messages for the first time last December. Number 10 have also had their own YouTube channel for some time now (alongside a rather interesting and eclectic mix of other stations!)
What strikes me as different about today’s announcement, however, is the fact that on this occasion the Government will be using YouTube to conduct a two-way dialogue: with members of the public posting their questions to the PM and (as I understand it) he then answering in kind via the same media. This is a potentially significant difference with resulting implications for its subsequent management. Previously YouTube was just one of many channels of distribution being used (with the apparent safety net that it didn’t matter if the Queen’s speech was being distributed by YouTube as the traditional ‘master copy’ would undoubtedly continue to reside and be managed internally). With this announcement, however, the ‘record’ is surely the combination of both questions asked and answers given with any separation between the two rendering the final record of little informational or evidential value. And it seems to me that only YouTube alone will be in a position to ensure the integrity and longevity of this evidence.
I suppose in this instance it could be argued that hosting such a debate via YouTube is fundamentally little different from the Prime Minster appearing on a televised discussion programme such as Question Time, where the final record belongs to the television production company or broadcaster and is therefore their responsibility to manage, rather than the government’s. Where this comforting analogy might breakdown in the future is if more and more public bodies start to use established Web2.0 services such as YouTube to collect evidence or conduct public enquiries in ways which rely on an accurate record of the dialogue being preserved as part of the formal decision making process. That may still be some way off at the moment, but announcements such as that made today suggest that it is a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’ that day arrives.