Guide to Using Digital Sources

Keeping up with the pace of change in digital technology is an industry in itself. When the first edition of Politics and Governance in the UK was published in 2005, for instance, YouTube had only just started (in February of that year.) It rapidly became an important instrument of political communication and propoganda and a very useful source for students.

The best way to think of digital sources is as providing three different kinds of material; some sources provide all three.

1. Primary source material

British government is increasingly digital government. All key contemporary documents, huge bodies of statistical data, and vast amounts of information about the organisation of the machine itself, are available to download at the click of a mouse. Below, in guides to individual chapters, I indicate the most significant sites for each separate part of the governing machinery. In addition, news sites also provide a rich harvest of up to date material. Increasingly, newpaper sites are ‘pay per view’ but The Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk) at the time of writing remains free to access and is a hugely valuable archive; the same goes for the BBC news sites (www.bbc.co.uk/news) though funding cuts threaten the range and richness of this source. BBC Democracy Live (http://www.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/) is a portal that streams the web live proceedings in a wide range of public institutions – like the parliaments and assemblies – of the UK. More conventionally, the BBC digital channel, BBC Parliament (www.bbc.co.uk/parliament) broadcasts more than the Westminster Parliament. It is particularly good on the raw tedium of most public business.

A fascinating article on the implications of this digitalisation of government is Dunleavy (2010): hard going but typically rewarding.

2. Digital academia

I have not read a hard copy of an academic journal in many years, and most university libraries now do not even stock hard copies. Any college library of any size will have a wide range of journals electronically available. Increasingly – and this is likely to develop rapidly in the next few years – academic books are also be available in e book form; indeed this textbook is now available as an e book, and you may even be one of the (still) minority who buy it in that form. The advantages for the reader are huge: in cost, portability and – in the case of journals – access automatically at all hours. In addition, it is now common, especially in the case of e journals, to be provided with hyperlinks to other sources: for instance in the case of papers dealing with studies of electoral behaviour links to the original data base on which the study draws. Increasingly also first rate teaching material is digitally available. Much that is on YouTube Education (https://www.youtube.com/t/education) for instance consists of lectures by academic ‘stars’ – the kind of material that in the past was confined to those lucky enough to be enrolled on their courses.

3. Making Politics Come Alive Digitally

Politics is a people business and understanding it has always depended on understanding the human factor. We long had ways of doing this traditionally: for instance, through biographies and diaries, and through news reporting. But digital postings have made this incomparably richer. Consider You Tube. Apart from the material available on YouTube Education (see above) the site generally is an extraordinarily rich source. For instance, just type in David Cameron to the main search function: it will produce a huge number of clips (of speeches, interviews, even spoofs). Nor is all this just propaganda material posted by spin doctors: You Tube for instance contains a disastrous interview between Mr Cameron and a reporter from Gay Times where he is tripped up trying to make sense of the Conservative Party’s convoluted attitudes to gay people.

The richness of digital sources in making politics come alive as a people business is a huge benefit which is only a few years old. It has some dangers: notably, it runs the risk of emphasising politics as soap opera. But politics in a democracy like the UK is in part a soap opera.