Friday Political Editor Michael St George reflects on why the political class is so keen on controlling the flow of information to us
Last year, it was the LibDems’ Chris Huhne, convicted and jailed for conspiring to pervert the course of justice for persuading his then wife to take his speeding points.
Last week, it was Labour’s Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt, exposed for their links in the 70s and 80s to a campaign group arguing for, in effect, the decriminalisation of coercive paedophilia and the lowering of the age of sexual consent to as young as 10.
This week, it was the one of the Prime Minister’s closest associates, one of the charmed inner circle of Dave’s chums making up his No 10 Downing Street operation, revealed as having resigned, under investigation for alleged sexual harassment and child porn offences – but a full three weeks ago, with the news coming out only two days ago.
And each story rocketed almost instantly throughout the entire spectrum of the public domain, via multiple platforms, leaving both the individuals and their embarrassed parties nowhere to hide.
Why? In a word, the internet. With both the gathering and dissemination of news and opinion open to everybody with a tablet, smartphone and internet connection, and no longer the exclusive preserve of a tight-knit, self-selecting and, crucially, biddable group of newspapers and broadcasters, political class misdeeds are being subjected to a degree of instant publication, transparency and mass scrutiny that is unprecedented. And it’s leaving the political class flat-footed.
It didn’t used to be like this. For those of you who can’t imagine a world before the internet, smartphones, Instagram and Twitter, here’s how it used to work.
Imagine there’s a story not yet in print and still only doing the rounds: it involves a junior Defence Minister, a couple of sultry Latin-American hookers, and a lucrative arms export contract to Latin America won, via significant Government lobbying on the spot, by a UK arms manufacturer who just happens to be a significant corporate donor to the Governing Party. And the story is actually true.
Now, this is journalistic dynamite. The Minister’s facing personal and political ruin, the Government’s going to be roasted alive by the Press and the Opposition, and the senior political correspondent’s looking at the kind of scoop, culminating in a ministerial scalp, that comes along maybe once in a lifetime.
Then a senior member of the Governing Party, possibly the Party Chairman, even, goes to see the Editor. The conversation probably goes something like this.
“This story about our junior Defence Minister that your senior political correspondent keeps calling No 10 about, old boy – d’you know, I really wonder if your readers are interested in this sort of Westminster and Fleet Street tittle-tattle? With so many serious issues the country’s facing at the moment, shouldn’t you instead be informing your readers about how we’re tackling them? And, dare I say it, there are a couple of issues of possible national security here too. Can’t say what they are, of course, I’m sure you understand that: but you wouldn’t want to jeopardise it, eh?”
“Anyway, that’s not the main reason I’m here. Strictly confidentially, I’ve been asked by No 10 to sound you out, informally at this stage of course, about whether you might be amenable to accepting a knighthood in the next Honours List? For services to journalism. You would? Why, that’s splendid, I’ll let No 10 know. Naturally, this has to be just between us at this stage, because if word got out, well, it might not be possible to go ahead with it. Appearances, you know.”
“Oh, before I go – back to this story about the Latin America arms deal and our junior Defence Minister. Do, please, have a think about whether this is really the kind of unsubstantiated rumour your paper would want to be seen peddling to its readers? Over the family breakfast table? In a responsible family newspaper?”
Later that day, the senior political correspondent gets a phone call at his desk. It’s the Editor. Drop the Defence Minister and the Lat-Am hookers story. Put it on the spike. Any further reference not in the national interest. Six months later, the Minister quietly takes the opportunity to resign in the next reshuffle, “to devote more time to my constituency and my family”. And the Editor, affecting surprise and delight, duly gets a K in the next Honours List.
And that’s how it used to be. But not any more.
Because the chances now are that someone would have taken an embarrassing photo of the Minister on their location-enabled smartphone, uploaded it on to the internet, posted it via Twitter, and have it round the entire world, never mind media outlets, before the Minister had even properly struggled back into his trousers.
And that someone else read the arms manufacturer’s press release on their website, cross-checked the dates with the details of ministers’ overseas trips on the MoD website, put two and two together, and hit the jackpot.
Once something like this is out there in the ether, of course, the Dead Tree Press and Tame Mainstream Media are playing catch-up. They can’t ignore it, because they look professionally incompetent at best, or politically compromised at worst – as did the BBC in studiously ignoring the Harman-Hewitt story for days before acknowledging its existence. And the odium heaped on the Minister’s head is all the more because the knowledge of his pecadillos is so much wider spead.
Make no mistake. The political class hate this, because it’s deprived them of what used to be their key sole ability to control the message – the ability that protected them, until the advent of instant, mass, electronic communication.
But that’s the thing about citizen journalism and the internet – it disintermediates the message. Until very recently, few of us could get political news direct from source. It had to be “interpreted” for us by a BBC man with a microphone, or a newspaper’s political correspondent. Now, though, people can make their own minds up.
This, for me, more than anything else, explains the political class’ desire to both regulate the Press, to the extent of using as arcane a device as a Royal Charter to introduce a system of Press “licensing” – ending 300 years of a free Press in Britain.
Were they appalled at the tabloid hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone? Possibly.
Did they abhor the invasion of the privacy of Z-list celebrities happy to use the Press to further their latest films but wanting to hide their latest domestic sordidness? Unlikely.
Did a large part of them welcome the possiblity of the left-wing Hacked Off achieving a predominantly leftish-tinged newspaper industry? Undoubtedly.
But did they like the possiblity of being, through control of licensing, able to stop, smother or dilute inconvenient stories about their own venality or incompetence? Damn right they did.
Remember, even before the Leveson Inquiry had concluded, a Special Adviser to Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Maria Miller tried to intimidate the Daily Telegraph into not running a story about Miller’s questionable housing expenses, citing her mistress’ “responsibility for implementing Leveson”. Not a coincidence.
It’s related also to the growing Government moves to control the internet.
Once upon a time, we had to accept a Government press release telling us how many were unemployed, or how much GDP growth there’d been in the last quarter, along with either the Government’s own spin on the data released or that put out by a “helpful” broadcaster.
Again, not any more. With so much data online, we can all go and verify the statistics ourselves with a few screen swipes or mouse clicks. And if the figures are being massaged, or selectively quoted, then a thousand 140-character condemnations and correections are speeding round the world within minutes.
Yet again, the political class hate this. That’s why, for me, the mutterings about internet filters, parental controls and the like, are gathering pace. Remember, the Snoopers Charter which the Givernment tried to introduce in 2012 would have enabled it to collect meta-data of every email and website visit. Government possesses extensive powers of investigation and access under the RIPA. And that;s before the revelations of last summer about Snowden and the NSA spying on us all.
The excuses given have always, of course, included our old friend, national security. Sometimes it might even be true – if you class exposing a junior Defence Minister’s accepting the “hospitality” of a couple of ladies of the night, courtesy of an arms manufacturer donor to the Government Party, as “national security”.
But the most recent vehicle seems to be mirroring the drive in tax policy, ie using our own health and welfare as an excuse for greater statism. Internet filters, monitoring and data-mining are justified in the name of protecting the young from “potentially damaging material”. It might even be true to a certain extent – although I wonder if the possibility of ceding more control of public access to information exercises our political class more than the danger your and my offspring might spend too much time watching online porn.
I suspect both the political class’ desire to regulate the Press, and their desire to impose more control on the internet, have a common source. When they do wrong, if at all possible, they don’t want you to know.