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.

    Do we really need this ironic iPhone app?

    Software manufacturer Satosoft have 1 released an iPhone application on the iTunes app store that lets you check your MP’s expenses, ring their constituency office, and send caustic emails. Its orientation is fairly clear, both from the description: “Satosoft give you the power to exercise your democratic right to ask one or all MP’s (sic) about their claims”, and from their first top ten: “Top Ten Highwaymen”.

    The thing is, though, all the information that they include is freely available to the public, without the polemic, either on all kinds of free websites, or from another (free) iPhone application.

    The typical price of an iPhone application is 59p. Some applications which fulfil major professional tasks, such as sound pressure level meters, or contain acres of information, such as a whole library of books, come in at £2 or so.

    This one comes in at a wapping £3.49. Seriously, that’s a lot of money for an iPhone application, especially one which does no more than give you information you can have for free, for example, on

    That is a fairly major level of irony. Satosoft, if they really do sell a reasonable number of these apps (defined by the 3 billion downloads that iPhone applications have had so far), will make far more money than the average MP has claimed in expenses.

    Heather Brooke, who led the campaign for their disclosure, has yet to make those kind of profits from her work.

    But even Satosoft’s prospective profits are trivial compared to the £millions that the Daily Telegraph has reportedly made from increased advertising revenues from its exclusive coverage of the debacle.

    Something has changed in British politics, and dedicated campaigners like Heather Brooke, who essentially worked for nothing, deserve praise. But the moral position of Satosoft and the Daily Telegraph seems altogether more dubious. As I have said before, the majority of MPs did not ‘cheat’ on their expenses, although the post-hoc review has most of them paying back money merely on the basis that a single examiner decided on an arbitrary level for how expenses should be set, rail-roading every kind of process which would be applied in any kind of business. A proportion of MPs have made enormous profits exploiting the system. A small number of MPs — it appears — may have broken the law and actually acted fraudulently.

    We need the clearest possible separation between those who acted uprightly and those who did not. Attempts to tar everyone with the same brush are unseemly. When they are linked to the hope of enormous profits, we are left with a distinct sense of the pot and the kettle.

    Show 1 footnote

    1. they treat their name as a plural noun

    Decade of distrust reaches an end

    The 2000s began with the end of Bill Clinton’s US presidency limping out of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. They finished with the UK House of Commons facing a collapse of public trust which is set to result in 1/3-1/2 of MPs leaving or losing their seats in the 2010 General Election, and trust in politicians at an all time low of 13%, according to IPSOS Mori. We went into the decade with the taste of the sleaze of the John Major administration still in our mouths, and, as a reminder, Jeffrey Archer charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice, a charge which was to see the man who had been selected to be Conservative candidate for Mayor of London sent to Belmarsh prison in 2001. We came out of it with the threat of prosecution hanging over a growing number of parliamentarians.

    Given that Major’s men were up to their tricks throughout the 1990s, and the current crop of Expenses-scandal-sleaze MPs had been doing what they did since either the 1990s, or whenever they got elected, where did politics go wrong?

    It’s a common misconception (pushed forward by those who hope to survive the storm) that it was the system which made MPs claim expenses to which they were not entitled. But this is manifestly untrue. No system makes people act in a dishonest way. Nobody was forced to break the law by claiming for mortgages which did not exist, nobody was forced to break the explicit parliamentary rule that expenses should not be managed in order to render a profit at the tax-payer’s expense, and nobody was forced to use the expenses system to claim for excesses such as moat cleaning, duck houses, and limed oak toilet seats (even as I write this one, I’m forced to think ‘did this really happen?’ Apparently, it did).

    Also, how is it that so many of them did it? It’s been pointed out (by me, among other people) that the majority of MPs were not engaged in these practices. But a sufficiently large minority from all three parties (including my own, though to a lesser degree) have done so that the entire class of MPs is not merely under suspicion, but under complete derision.

    Political parties are now changing the way in which they assess and select parliamentary candidates. But it’s fair to say that, in the 1990s and 2000s, candidates were not being assessed on the trustworthiness, although (especially in the ‘spin’ years), parties have always been interested in credibility.
    So, what’s the difference?
    Credibility is whether or not you appear trustworthy to people. Politicians with no interest in football have been told to bone up on the off-side rule in order to appear more credible in urban constituencies. Politicians who live in London but are standing in far-flung rural areas (ie, anywhere outside the M25 that is not 90% urban) are photographed in Barbour jackets. People change their accents, go through teeth-whitening procedures (because people with whiter teeth tell fewer lies… right), and discover obscure ancestries which link them to the constituency. Every ‘parachute’ candidate rents a flat where they intend to stand. Credibility can be bought for the right price with the right advice. It doesn’t always work — we all remember William Hague’s reverse base-ball cap, and David Cameron being photographed cycling to work, followed by a van full of his papers. But, despite these minor mishaps, David Cameron at least has shed most of the Eton / Oxford exclusive dining club / millionaire image that he grew up with.

    Trustworthiness is something quite different. Self-evidently, many of the people we trusted were not worthy of our trust.

    So, where do we go from here?

    If we really want trustworthy politicians, we need to start voting for them. I think it’s fair to say that the big political parties have not got the message. There has not been a flurry to find candidates who are more honest than those of previous generations. The all-women, all-ethnic minority shortlist talk is not about increasing trustworthiness, but about increasing the overall credibility of the party that shortlists them. Actually, a desire to increase credibility without a search for honesty is a mark of the deepest untrustworthiness. Or bad faith, as we used to call it. But the big parties are counting on the public voting on party, political or tribal lines, not lines of trust. They believe that, after we’ve had our rant, we will still lump all politicians together as necessary evils, and get on with voting for the ones we would have voted for anyway. Therefore, we need to disappoint them, and severely.

    But, given that every politician will be coming to us at the election with the claim that they are more trustworthy than the others, and given that the richest and best connected will be able to have the best advice and be able to buy the best services, how can we tell?

    Here are my thoughts:
    1) What did they do before politics?
    People who have served the public, perhaps in charities, in the armed forces, in the muckier bits of the public sector, have a very different track record from those who made a killing in the city or played around with inherited wealth before being given a safe-seat. That doesn’t mean that people who work in the city are not trustworthy, or that inherited wealth makes people liars, but a track record of service in the past goes a long way towards underlining a promise that they will serve us in the future.

    2) How hard did they have to work to get here?
    The vast majority of expenses-scandal MPs have been in what are generally termed ‘safe-seats’. Check out someone’s political track-record. Have they faced disappointment and defeat in the past, or have they been handed easy victories? Easy victories don’t make someone untrustworthy, but the majority of those who cheated did have big majorities to shore them up.

    3) Where does their money come from?
    People whose every working hour is given to becoming richer are unlikely to give up the habit when they get elected. More importantly, there are some ways to get rich, or, get by, which are in the public interest, and some which are predatory in nature. Someone who trades on other people’s greed, weakness or ignorance in order to gain their money is unlikely to be trustworthy in parliament.

    4) For sitting MPs, what have they done?
    The ideal MP works hard, claims only reasonable expenses, and arranges their affairs so that there is not even a suggestion that they may be profiting at the public expense. If your MP is seldom in the House of Commons, has claimed extravagantly, or has made a fortune through publicly-funded property speculation, then there is very little reason to believe that they will change their ways in the next parliament.

    5) What’s their position on second jobs?
    Will your candidate be dedicating his or her paid time exclusively to the House of Commons, or will that time be shared with company directorships, business dealings, lobbying firms and lucrative contracts? The rules, it appears, will not be changing to ensure that they do not, so it’s a good indicator of just how trustworthy they really are. For sitting MPs, you can easily check the register. For candidates, you can write to them or ask them at a public meeting whether they will be retaining any of these income streams, and whether they can guarantee to make the House of Commons their sole source of income. Taking a second job does not make someone necessarily untrustworthy, but, if someone is promising to dedicate their life to serving you in the next parliament, you can legitimately question how much time that will leave them for other things.

    6) How do they respond to criticism?
    No-one likes being criticised, but it’s instructive to see how people behave when they are accused of an impropriety. Some people flare up, some people become very sad, some people become very earnest. All of these are normal reactions. But some people demonstrate consummate skill in deflecting the criticism. This isn’t necessarily a sign that they are untrustworthy, but, taken with the other indicators, it can reenforce what you already know. Jack Straw, who isn’t from my party, always gets very agitated when people criticise him on Radio 4. A friend of mine who worked with him tells me that he is, in person, very trustworthy. Peter Mandelson, from that same party, is always very smooth in the face of criticism. Partly that’s his job, but, equally, the word is that he is not necessarily the first person you would want to trust.

    7) How hard do they try to be credible?
    Finally — and for this you need to really meet them and look them in the eye — how hard are they trying to be credible? You probably won’t be able to tell if they’ve had their teeth whitened (some people have naturally white teeth), but, when you talk to them, if you move off the usual subjects, you can get a fairly good impression about whether they are happy to talk about anything, or always want to move the conversation back to them, their credibility, the uncredibility of other candidates, the sins of other parties. Anyone who is too desperate to have you trust them — like a car salesman who keeps saying “I’ll be honest with you” — is probably not someone you should be trusting. Again, some people are naturally eager to make friends. But, generally, those people are more natural at it.

    I don’t want to suggest that everyone who fails these tests is a liar, and, I’m sure, there are people even now coaching would-be MPs about how to pass these tests, or others like them. But, if we have no tests, then we are left only with what the candidates tell us about themselves. With their credibility, not their trustworthiness. If you don’t like these, then write down what things would make you trust or distrust someone. But do it, and then vote on it.

    Otherwise, as we enter the 2010s, rather than the government we really want, we will once again elect the government we deserve.

    Many people will wish to point out that the decade ends at the end of 2010, and the new decade begins in 2011. I do agree with them. However, the arbitrary decade beginning with the year 2000, which was celebrated (somewhat bizarrely), as the Millennium (bizarrely because, notwithstanding questions about year 0, nothing in particular happened in the Year 1000 for us to commemorate) has reached an end, and it is that decade which I am describing.

    After the fire…

    Warwickshire County Council did not know what had hit it when thousands of people took to the streets up and down the county to protest proposed cuts to the fire service. The level of public anger was vastly greater than expected. Bosses understood that closing down fire stations would not be popular. But what inflamed residents most was the apparent dishonesty of the consultation document, which worked so hard to talk up the benefits that it neglected to mention the proposals would reduce the number of fire-fighters and close fire-stations.

    Within four months of the consultation document being released, county councillors in the ruling Conservative party had done an about face and put the proposals on indefinite hold. Three days later, Conservative party leader David Cameron was despatched to Leamington Spa to suggest that the proposals should wait until after the public enquiry into the deaths of firefighters at the Atherstone-on-Stour tragedy. Whatever his intention, this fuelled speculation, in the Stratford Herald as well as in other places, that the decision to suspend (not scrap) the fire cuts was made in order to defend an increasingly shaky electoral position in Warwickshire, and that councillors were responding not to the will of the people, but to the dictat from Conservative Central Office.

    One of the officers involved with putting the proposals forward told me that consultation documents were supposed to put one side of the story, and that this was standard practice up and down the country. When I suggested that this was not, or should not be, the case, he asked me how else the changes could be pushed through. It had clearly not occurred to him that, if it was impossible to persuade an informed public who had been given all the facts, perhaps they should not be pushed through at all.

    I don’t think there was ever a time when anyone in Warwickshire would have been taken in by the consultation document which was put before us. But I do believe the extreme spin which was put on it reflected the fear of the people putting it forward, and that fear was fuelled by three things.

    First, it was fuelled by the knowledge that, just a few months before, the man who was to front it had been promising that there would be no fire cuts. Whether this made a difference to his electoral prospects or not it’s hard to say, but, clearly, Warwickshire Conservatives believed that no word of fire cuts could or should be breathed before the County elections, which saw them take Warwickshire from no overall control into Conservative administration. Councillors were clearly afraid that they would be accused (which they in the event were) of concealing swingeing cuts, and they tried to hide this by presenting the cuts not as cuts at all, but as an increase.

    Second, it was fuelled by the knowledge that Warwickshire would shortly be sharply criticised in a national review.
    This information was not made available to the public until the day after the consultation finished, but the Comprehensive Area Assessment known as OnePlace reported: “The Fire and Rescue Authority know they have to improve their fire prevention service. They also know that they have to change the way they work to improve the service as a whole. This is a difficult task and part of the challenge will be to explain the plans to residents so they understand the reasons for the need to modernise the way the service is provided.” In the fuller text, the assessment added: “They have been slow to make the changes needed to provide a more efficient, modern fire service that balances emergency response with good prevention and protection work and gives taxpayers good value for money. The pace of change is picking up.”

    The extreme haste with which the proposals were developed and put to public consultation between the end of the council elections and the announcement of this assessment reflects the real fear that people would be even less open to change if they knew what was driving it. In fact, almost certainly the opposite would have been true — if the authorities had admitted early on that they were in serious trouble and needed help, they would have gained a more sympathetic hearing. I doubt it would have changed the outcome, but it would definitely have changed the tone.

    Third, it was fuelled by the fear that, after all, the proposals did not stack up. Councillors and officers initially refused to release the full document setting out the risk assessment for the changes, and only did so when Liberal Democrats Hazel Wright and Peter Moorse on Stratford District Council put in a Freedom of Information request. This was the first official, public document that admitted that fire stations would close and that the total number of fire-fighters would be reduced by 51 (the consultation document gave the impression that they would be increased by 25). When a subsequent Freedom of Information request asked for the costings, the answer was that costings had not been calculated.

    All these fears that the public would mistrust the reasons behind the proposals — in the bizarre world of half-baked decisions and incomplete logic — led those putting the document forward to produce not something which was so transparently transparent that people would be forced to say “we disagree with your proposals, but we admire the honesty and clarity with which you put them”, but which in every sense failed to fulfil its obligations to the public trust.

    After all the revelations of MP expenses during the summer, for people to be given something in the guise of a consultation which was little more than a trick, was more than anyone was willing to stand.

    I have yet to meet one person from the Warwickshire public who supported or trusted the proposals. I doubt that I ever will. In a year when public trust in politicians has fallen to its lowest in recorded history, the Warwickshire Fire Consultation did us the gravest disservice.

    It is customary, when a major public consultation, on which an organisation is betting its future, fails, for someone to offer their resignation. As yet, no-one has. I think it is probably too much to hope that, in the next few months, in order to restore damaged public trust, someone will.

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