Wednesday, December 22, 2010

So should elected representatives now assume that all conversations with members of the public may be recorded and used against us?

Vince Cable was foolish to speak to a relative stranger about a sensitive and quasi-judicial matter – the Murdoch/BskyB/Ofcom business. It’s hard to believe that he was so unwise – but then I am used to local government under Labour’s Standards Board reign of terror, where planning committee members had to guard against expressing views on planning applications before the matter was debated.

Former Lib Dem MP David Howarth has speculated on whether the Telegraph sting might have been illegal. There has been some hand-wringing in the media about the use of underhand methods, but media outlets have cheerfully recycled the Telegraph’s story.

Clearly elected representatives are never likely to earn much sympathy in crying foul about media unfairness, but in my view there is something destructive about the way the Telegraph obtained the story – an undermining of the basis on which politicians and their electors interact.

Perhaps the biggest frustration I have found over the years about being an elected representative is that, even as a lowly district councillor, one can no longer express purely personal opinions in public – blog postings, letters to newspapers etc. all have to be considered in the context of whether they might prove to be a faux pas that could be used against the party. And I imagine it’s the same only rather more so for parliamentarians and government ministers.

Yet one assumes there is some flexibility. As elected representatives when we speak on the record to journalists, or in formal public meetings, we know that our comments may be noted down, recorded or reported and quoted back at us, and we have to choose our words accordingly. By contrast in the privacy of home, or among close friends, we can perhaps sound off without fear of making a political gaffe.

Somewhere in the middle are conversations with constituents – on the street, over the telephone, canvassing on doorsteps, or as with Vince’s Telegraph encounter, at a surgery. When members of the public get in touch one wants to put them at their ease and converse with them informally – perhaps even to show that politicians too are human beings (well, almost). The conversation is not quite private, but not really public either. We may make off-the-cuff remarks or empathise with someone’s concerns and complaints without feeling that every comment we make is a formal statement of policy.

This is where the Telegraph story is destructive. The risk for anyone holding public office of being recorded by a journalist posing as a constituent may be low. But this episode establishes that the principle is all right. In which case, we are safest not to interact in a natural and informal way with members of the public who contact us. Instead, if we wish to avoid trouble, we are best off (to borrow a phrase from Queen Victorian’s description of Gladstone) speaking to constituents as if they are public meetings, answering questions only with carefully-thought-out, pre-prepared, on-message, formal statements, not the instinctive reactions of one human being talking to another.

Of course, the media being what it is, concerns about the integrity of the democratic process will hardly matter to journalists seeking a good story. But my fears might be valid just the same.


Niklas said...

Sadly I think you're right: MPs and perhaps councillors too will be more cautious in speaking to their constituents.

But part of the problem is that the ministers fingered by the Telegraph all apologised profusely and in a dreadful hurry. No Labour minister every appologised for poisonous off-the-record briefings against their colleagues, so why should Lib Dem ministers apologise for saying that they have disagreements with Conservative colleagues?

Rather than give the impression that debate and dissent is shameful we should have faced down the Telegraph and told the world that it's better to have debate than mindlessly following the diktats of some Big Beast.

Niklas said...

P.S. There is already far too much trouble caused by busybodies arguing that councillors are speaking as representatives of the council and as such "should not bring it into disrepute", as in the case of Cllr John Dixon:

This is especially sad as councillors are (or should be) representatives of the public to the unelected officials who actually run the council!

Niklas said...

And Vince agrees with you!

An interview with his local newspaper: