Why we can’t expect open government (but should)

February 18, 2011 at 11:48 am (media, politics)

When filming or broadcasting from a conference one of the more frequent challenges is actually getting people to speak on camera.
Often this is down to a subject’s nerves or a lack of experience with public speaking or sometimes because speakers are worried that their ‘amazing’ presentation (which they charge a packet to deliver) will be made available for free online.

But worryingly, when dealing with central gov civil servants it’s because they don’t want what they are saying to be spread beyond the confines of the room. Obviously they know those present are likely to go back and share the content with co-workers, so what are they so worried about me filming for? Surely in this age of open government everyone should be happy to for their insights to be shared as much as possible?

I used to think exactly that and get angry when we had to turn the camera off (often for the juciest bit of the day), but actually given the behavior of the many media outlets can we blame them?

Often these civil servants want to have frank discussions with those present and the delegates rightly want to hear whats really going on and whats happening in Whitehall, not some mediated version for the cameras.

The issue is – why is there a difference? – again an open government should not have to hide behind the likes of Alistair Campbell or Andy Coulson to ‘present’ the thoughts and plans of government, yet millions of pounds are spent on just that, in both central and local government.
Why? Some would say its because deep down the government want to keep us in the dark and mindlessly consume, before mumbling something about reptilian shape-shifters. But I think there is another reason, highlighted recently by the treatment of @baskers by the Daily Mail recently.

The mainstream news media (I’m not going to single out newspapers, as most of the  TV news agenda is exactly the same) has some terrible habits such as selective reporting, twisting words and  forming narratives that aren’t really there. This means that both civil servants and politicians have to pussy-foot around the issues and make sure comments are press friendly.

The best example of this I can think of is the war on drugs, for two reasons. The first is Bob Ainsworth’s assertion that, “We reclassified cannabis back to B. Why? Because the Daily Mail told us that we had to – for no reason other than that,” and the second is what he said at the same time about David Cameron:

“David Cameron agreed with (the decriminalisation of drugs) when he was a member of the home affairs select committee. But when he became leader of the Conservative party, he recanted. He said that he was wrong. He did not feel that he could sustain his position. I doubt if his mind has changed at all. I bet you he still believes, as I believe, that the war on drugs doesn’t work. But he doesn’t feel able to say so.”

There is actually a third reason – the sacking of respected scientist Prof David Nutt as the then Government’s chief drugs adviser, because his findings weren’t to the Daily Mail’s, er I mean the Government’s, liking.

Because of cases like this civil servants are rightly scared of speaking out and I can understand this – therefore I believe we won’t have open government until the Government, of whatever political make-up, gets a fair run in the media.

But there are also demands on media outlets: As a journalist I fully appreciate the need for the press to hold MPs to account – it’s a vital part of any democracy. The media also needs readers or viewers in order to survive and it could be argued that sensationalist reporting is a way of appealing to them (this for another post).

I believe we are in a vicious circle. We want open government – this not being possible until (public opinion forming) press treats Gov fairly – fair treatment not conducive to boosting readership/ratings. (not sure if this is a vicious circle or just a vicious line – but it’s definitely vicious!)

Many would say “that’s just the way it is and Gov need to get used to it,” well to them I say “you can never expect to have an open government then!”

Now for why it’s exactly what we should expect!

Firstly I am extremely anti-censorship and against over regulation of the press, so that is not an option for me, but there are other ways:

Despite the fears mentioned above there are enough people out there who realise that people like @baskers should be cheered not booed. Not because she has come up with an amazing new policy in the face of conventional thought, but simply because she says what she feels. Once the likes of the Mail realises there are in fact thousands of @baskers out there who don’t love every second of their job, occasionally disagree with their boss and, god forbid, sometimes have a pint at lunch time then it stops becoming a story.

And in much the same way if more senior civil servants were prepared to speak out and offer their opinions, then people might realise that Government is made up of people who don’t always agree with each other or their political masters, but are prepared to work hard to reach the best outcome they can, then this too stops becoming front page news and we will be one step closer to open government.

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