democracy

How did the Charles Kennedy defection story gain credibility?

How did the Charles Kennedy defection story gain credibility?

Charles Kennedy, on the day I first met him in 1999

BBC — Charles Kennedy calls rumours ‘absolute rubbish’ On Saturday, several newspapers ran stories that former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy was in talks with Labour with a view to defecting. When the story was denied by the Liberal Democrat party, but not immediately by Charles Kennedy, many bloggers took this as a sign that the rumours were true.

Of course, Kennedy has now denied them, saying “I am not joining the Labour Party and have not had any discussions about it with anyone from the Labour Party.”

But the question remains, why did anyone think it was plausible in the first place, and why did newspapers choose to run an unsubstantiated story?

There are two issues here. The first is about the way the public — or, at least, some journalists and editors — see the natural relationships in politics. The Lib Dems have been perceived for a long time as a sort of ‘soft Labour’: during the Blair years, possibly even a refuge for Labour activists who felt they could not back their party on Iraq. Attempts by ‘Orange Book’ Lib Dems such as Oaten (remember him), Webb and Clegg to put forward a slightly right of centre economic theory were dismissed as pandering to potential Tory crossover voters. Very few people ever imagined that Lib Dems would really be involved in anything as unsocialist, or, indeed, anti-socialist, as the current coalition. Kennedy was the only Lib Dem MP who did not vote for the coalition. Therefore, he is the obvious candidate for defection. The fact that he is the ousted former Liberal Democrat leader lends spice to the story.

Was there ever a basis of fact? Was there some meeting or conversation that took place which could credibly have been misunderstood to have been about defection? Or was someone just making mischief, using their informal role as an informed source to possibly try and flush Kennedy out? We may never know.

Now to the other matter. If this had been a business deal, or a celebrity, or some such, there would have been talk of the Press Complaints Commission by now. Newspapers have a duty not to publish misleading stories, and the fact that a journalist may have been themselves honestly misled is not a defence. The onus is on the publisher to ensure that they do not mislead.

However, the moment a politician is involved, it seems that it is open season, and, really, anything goes. Journalists may believe that politicians get what they deserve, and anyone who puts themselves into the public spotlight gets what is coming to them. But the issue is really not the damage done to politicians, but the damage done to journalism, and by extension, to democracy.

Confidence in journalists, newspapers and politicians is more or less as far down as it can go. Even the expenses scandal of last year did not depress the stock market value of politicians very much. But is it really the job of journalists to keep it down at the bottom level?

Since I first decided to stand for parliament, back in 1998, people have asked me over and over again “why?” Sometimes it’s because they feel the cost/benefit isn’t very good, and they may well have a point. But most of the time they say something like: “You seem like a nice enough chap. Why would you want to get involved in that?”

Given that the vast majority of people in Britain will never meet their MP or their local councillor, this is rarely because of personal contact with MPs. In fact, people who know MPs personally generally regard the ones they know as really rather honourable. But there is an assumption that, as a class, they are scoundrels.

Perhaps MPs are. Perhaps our current crop are talentless good-for-nothings who bought their way into parliament with either trades-union backing, inherited money, or money earned through financial dealings of the kind that brought the economy to its knees. But if we persist in treating MPs as if they are guilty until proved innocent, we will never attract the next generation of MPs (if the current crop really are like that) who will be honest, hard-working servants of the people, in it out of duty and public service, not out of greed and self-aggrandisement.

As Winston Churchill pointed out, in democracy we get the government we deserve. But this is not just what we deserve when we go out and vote. It is what we deserve as a result of the stories we choose to put our trust in, the newspapers we choose to buy, the stories we choose to retell, to retweet, to post on Facebook or on blogs.

Unlimited press freedom comes, it seems, at a heavy price.

Why Britain needs Labour to find its feet — fast

Why Britain needs Labour to find its feet — fast

Simon Hughes addresses parliamentary candidates, June 2010

Simon Hughes — a one man conscience of the coalition — addresses Lib Dem candidates.

BBC News – Will geeks inherit the earth?. Like it or not (and I don’t), our electoral system is locked into “us” and “them”. Government and official opposition. That’s how the system works and, though I believe it’s time to change it, as long as it is the system (to paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force), we have to make it work.

Until three months ago, we had the luxury of two opposition parties. The system didn’t really cope with that particularly well, and the electoral framework creaked under the weight of it. But it meant that legislation, policy and rhetoric were put under powerful scrutiny.

Journalists, of course, argue that they are the real scrutiny on government, which is why freedom of the press is so essential to democracy. As an aside, the same newspapers which bleat longest about this tend to be the ones that exercise the maximum of power without responsibility, and complain the loudest at any attempts by the BBC to increase its journalistic reach. But that is an aside. Journalism does play an important role, but the very fact that journalists are not offering to form the next government limits that role severely: anyone can pundit (Michael Gove, when still a journalist, introduced himself and some of his colleagues to me once as “the punditing classes”), but, like an irritating teenage back seat driver, one tends to pay less attention if the critic has never actually put themselves forward for a driving test.

Which brings us back to our two-way / three-way system, which has suddenly become a one-way system. Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining that Liberal Democrats are in government. We knew this would push us back down in the polls. We knew we would have to swallow some policies which we found unpalatable. But we also knew that to abrogate the responsibility, play no part in government, and limit ourselves to the role of endless back-seat motorist, would do the nation no good.

But, perhaps in this at least we were deceived: we imagined that Labour would quickly reinvent or at least reassert itself, find a leader to rally around, and start asking the questions of government which we would be asking if we weren’t in it. This is not a function of there being a leadership contest. David Cameron and David Davis made considerable use of their own leadership campaigns to get some substantial barbs into the then Blair government. In a certain sense, it gave the party a free shot at goal, because it would be committed to the point of view of only one of the contenders. One might imagine that by having five contenders, Labour would be able to launch a veritable broadside of witty, incisive and damaging attacks.

But they have not. We are all worried about cloned animals entering the British food chain, but with four identikit contenders and just one token ‘other’, Labour has taken political cloning to a beyond-GM level. Far better it would have been for just one Miliband, one person representing an entirely different perspective (old-fashioned left-winger, anyone? anyone?), Diane Abott, and no others. The public can’t really cope with five options, even if the Labour faithful can get all passionate about the benefits of one ex-Oxbridge ex-policy advisor with two or fewer children over three others of the same type.

I am not looking for a decent opposition in order to bring down the coalition. Far from it: I want the coalition to succeed, and Britain needs it to succeed. But it will succeed better if properly scrutinised by a considered, passionate and informed opposition that can command the public’s respect. At the moment — for all their policy credentials — the Labour gang of five cannot even command the public’s interest.

It is left to Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes, party deputy leader, to carry on as a one man opposition within the government, a conscience for the party and the coalition.

This can be sustained — but only for a short while. We desperately, desperately need Labour to find its feet and fulfil its system-ordained purpose.

Political parties worry about being endlessly condemned to opposition. But that is not the worst place to be. Far worse for them, and Britain, to be self-condemned to offering no opposition.

Or none that serves any purpose.

Real Issues, number 2: Freedom and the Press

Freedom of the Press is a dearly bought and dearly held concept in British democracy. The internet age raises new questions, and, so far, the answers are not clear cut.

The three key issues which the online world raises are:

  • What is the status of ‘citizen journalists’?
  • What are our rights in terms of intrusion on privacy?
  • How should newspapers be able to recoup their costs?
  • 1 Citizen journalists
    Ten years ago, there were online magazines, campaign or issue sites, and bulletin boards. This site began as one of them. Five years ago these were all converging sharply into the world of blogging. Blogging isn’t so much about the technology, as being about citizen-journalist created content, published on the web. Some blogs are anonymous, others are very clearly the property of the writers. Already a number of people have very publicly lost their jobs because their blogs (allegedly) broke the terms and conditions of their employment. More worryingly, a number of people have lost their jobs because their anonymous blogs or online aliases were tracked down, and their employers took exception. Kimberly Swann was sacked for moaning on her Facebook page about her ‘totally boring job’, even though this was essentially a private section of the web which only a few people could see.
    Are bloggers citizen journalists, or are they just bored people making trouble online? What protections should they receive against snooping by their employers if they have taken the trouble to keep their thoughts anonymous? Equally, what recourse should there be for people who have been misrepresented on a blog, short of taking the blogger to court — if they can find them?

    These questions are inextricably linked with the next issue.

    2 Intrusion on privacy
    Traditional news is governed by the Press Complaints Commission Code. The code is sometimes considered very one-sided, giving journalists and editors the right to say almost whatever they want about you as long as they call it opinion, and giving you no more recourse than a tiny retraction on page 16 if the PCC rules in your favour. On the other hand, it is infinitely preferable to taking a newspaper to court which does little more than blazon whatever they have printed about you across the front page of every newspaper and magazine, assuming you are a celebrity. Newspapers accept the strictures of the PCC because they also recognise it as hugely preferable than the alternative — primary legislation limiting what they can write.
    But there is also an implicit assumption in traditional print which is based on the commercial considerations of how much it costs to produce the newspaper: private citizens do not generally get pursued, or, if they do, not for long. On the internet, if someone decides to have a go at you, unless you really are willing to take them to court, they can pursue you for as long as they want. We might assume that the rantings of a single blogger without backing will not do you much harm, and that a lash from the Daily Mail (for example) will sting much more. But the way the global internet community works is based not on status but on interest. An internet activist who can write interesting text — and vituperation can be especially interesting to many people — can get linked by all and sundry, and, as a story in itself, their campaign can make its way into mainstream media. A Robin Hood figure attacking the rich and powerful may well gain our sympathy, and we may wish to assure their protection. But what about someone who runs a vicious (but highly entertaining) online campaign against a local shop-keeper, whose business eventually fails as a result?

    3 Making a profit
    Newspapers will argue that their content is much more expensive to produce than blogs. They are almost certainly right. A number of my friends who are photographers or journalists have lost their jobs over the last two years as a result of the downsizing of the industry. This began long before the recession. Newspapers are finding it hard to compete, as their advertising revenues are going online, and the ‘pence per click’ is just as likely to go to a popular blogger as to their own authoritative and expensive pages. The Newspaper Licensing Agency — not, despite the name, an official body — is now trying to charge for the right to link content, on the rather specious ground that this is a breach of copyright. But the NLA was created by the newspaper industry initially to maximise the profits, but increasingly to shore up the losses, of the content they generate by collecting revenues on copyright materials.

    If we abandon newspapers to market forces, then we will head rapidly towards a world in which unreferenced and poorly sourced gossip is our one alternative to publicly funded news such as the BBC. I’m a big fan of the BBC website, and want it to continue. I regard it as more or less the best site on the internet. But we place ourselves in a parlous position if the only source of news which can pay its way is owned by the government, even at arms-length, through the license-fee payer.

    There are some very easy answers to all of these questions, and they’ve been around for some time. The trouble is, that all of the very easy answers, in their implementation, create much more complex situations and many unintended consequences. However, these matters will not wait long. To leave the questions unanswered is to provide an answer, of a sort. But it is unlikely to be an answer with consequences which we will like.

    The work of the next parliament must absolutely address these issues, albeit quietly, and without trumpets and drums.

    Real issues, number one…

    Business, as I learned when I was in it, is about forming partnerships to get the end consumers products that they need, want, or will enjoy, in a way which is cheaper, better, faster or easier than the way they would otherwise get them. In this way, the manufacturer grows rich, the supply chain grows rich, and the consumer has a richer life experience. And, of course, both the transactions and the profits also involve a contribution to taxation, which funds many of the things which are good, but which would not otherwise happen if left to market forces alone.

    But not all businesses are like this. There is always an undercurrent — and sometimes it is powerful and drags in whole communities — of businesses which make their money by tricking the customer, by preying on fear, on misinformation, on unethical selling tactics, or simply on the poor life chances of their victims. The Office of Fair Trading regularly shuts businesses of this kind down, but they persist, and, in some cases, gain the protection of the law, even when what they are doing is blatantly unjust.

    In a deprived community, all of the following are probably acting:

      unsecured, high interest loan companies
      companies processing money transactions for a high fee for those without a bank account
      employers who repeatedly hire staff for six months and then fire them, in order never to have to make redundancy payments
      quasi-legal firms urging people towards unnecessary litigation
      ‘bait and switch’ online traders
      landlords offering below-basic accommodation for prices designed to gain the maximum housing allowance
      companies providing cash machines where there are no bank-supported ATMs, with a transaction cost sometimes 20% of the money drawn

    Over the twelve and a bit years I lived in Stechford, one of the UK’s most deprived communities, I saw all of these, some quite regularly. By contrast with dodgy second-hand car salesmen, unhygienic restaurants, people selling contraband cigarettes and garages offering MOT certificates for dangerous vehicles, all of the above trade within the law. And yet they suck the life out of the communities least able to afford them, and least able to resist them.

    This is legally sanctioned injustice. It engenders anger, and despair. I saw the anger boil over into rioting in the 1980s. In the 2000s, I more frequently saw a cold resignation. “They’ll always rip you, but you can’t do much,” is a phrase I heard all too often.

    Should a nanny-state prevent people from spending their money however they like, even if it means they get perhaps just 70p in the pound in terms of value received? Or should predatory traders be allowed to get away with anything they like, so long as they stay within the letter of the law?

    In the seminal book The Spirit Level, public health doctors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett examine the life expectancy, crime rates and other key metrics from the twenty most prosperous nations, and show, fairly convincingly, a strong correlation between larger gaps between rich and poor and poor overall life expectancy and societal good for the community as a whole. The UK, Portugal, and USA have the widest gaps in the Western World, and perform worst on almost all the metrics. Correlation, of course, does not demonstrate causation. However, it is fairly elementary to show that endemic injustice begets both violence and despair.

    Government should be working on global warming, on the economy, and on rebuilding Britain’s damaged democracy, because these are big things which only governments are big enough to tackle. But government must also have a care for the little things. The answer is not additional legislation. Indeed, many of these companies prosper in the tangled world of badly drafted legislation which allow them to invoke clauses or style themselves as other kinds of businesses than they are. But we do need some of the collective intelligence of Whitehall and Westminster to be directed at these issues.

    There is no armageddon waiting round the corner if we do not tackle these things. The British National Party may well elect its first MP at the General Election, as might UKIP, trading on false blame for the causes of deprivation. But it is almost inconceivable that they will ever have enough seats on anything, even the Parish Council, to actually set or influence policy. But we should tackle these issues because it is our duty to do so. Those who are elected are elected to serve the whole population, and to make decisions which benefit all.

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