Standards? What standards?

Over at Your Right To Know, the estimable Heather Brooke, whose freedom of information work did so much to expose the scandal of MPs expenses, details a bizarre demand from the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Brooke had testified to the committee on 30 June, and also given a written submission. The submission was subsequently published on Brooke’s site and on the committees.

But earlier this week, she received an email stating:

Dear Ms Brooke

Our lawyers have advised us not publish your submission due to the following reason:

“it contains statements about named individuals which are potentially defamatory.”

We are currently seeking their clarification and requesting suitable redaction.

Once we have this, I will forward them to you for your authority, in writing, to the redaction. We will then be able to publish your submission.

Anju Still
Business Manager
Committee on Standards in Public Life

The evidence had, indeed, disappeared from the committee’s site.

Brooke today received a letter from the committee, suggesting she redact certain parts of the submission published on her site. You can read the submission here, with suggestion redactions in bold).

There seems to be no evidence that anyone actually wants to sue Brooke for any part of her submission. As she put it to Index, we are witnessing a “culture of proactive self-censorship. They are not even waiting for a complaint but predicting possible complaints.”

Furthermore, how can the committee conduct its business, if people cannot report to it without any protection from potential defamation proceedings?

Curiouser and curiouser.

Power from the people

The Life and Death of Democracy, by John Keane, Simon & Schuster, £30

Democracy: 1,000 Years in Pursuit of British Liberty, by Peter Kellner, Mainstream, £25

The other day, as I was waiting to meet someone in the House of Commons, an old-school MP accosted me. “Isn’t it terrible, all that’s going on?” His implication was that the expenses scandal had unjustly dragged this venerable institution into the mud. “No, it isn’t,” I replied. “It’s marvellous.” Horrified, he skulked away. I am not in the habit of making sweeping utterances such as these. Perhaps it was more than a dozen years of disdain for the Westminster village that had been reined in, and could now be unleashed as I no longer considered myself part of the club.

That club, which contains MPs, peers, political journalists, advisers, lobbyists and other assorted hangers-on in London SW1, had until recently operated under a strict but unspoken code of conduct. Criticise MPs and parties as much you like but do not call into question the magnificence and munificence of parliament. We may dodge and weave a bit; we may wage illegal wars from time to time, we may not be very adept at scrutinising our executive, but when it comes to those perfidious foreigners, what a great story we have to tell.

From the moment I returned after being a foreign correspondent in the mid 1990s and entered the world of men in strange clothes and old habits, I was dispirited by the state of our politics. Thus it was with some anticipation that I delved into two erudite works on the history of democracy one covering the world, the other the UK. John Keane’s global anthology is a gargantuan feat of erudition. He moves deftly from ancient Greece (not the great citadel it is held up to be, apparently), to Machiavelli, to America’s founding fathers, who, the author argues, were originally wary of introducing representative democracy. Keane quotes one delegate from New Haven, Connecticut, opposing “election by the people” because they lack information and are “constantly liable to be misled”.

The author is at his most persuasive in knocking down easy assumptions. He points out that consultative assemblies flourished in the Islamic world from the beginning of the 13th century until the demise of the Ottoman empire. These assemblies, called meshwerets, were highly effective. He states that, contrary to “some old-fashioned, devoutly British, accounts”, which assume British birthright for parliamentary democracy, the venue for the first working parliament was actually northern Spain. He tells the compelling story of King Alfonso IX, a man whose fits of epilepsy earned him the nickname “the dribbler”, and who came up against the determined opposition of the local nobility. He sought to go over their heads, to convene a larger group of “good men”. And so “it was in the walled, former Roman town of Leon, in March 1188 — a full generation before King John’s Magna Carta of 1215 — that Alfonso IX convened the first ever cortes, as contemporaries soon christened it.”

Keane’s particular contribution to the debate is to emphasise the global, rather than the narrowly Anglo-Saxon, roots of democracy. His grasp of the present and his prescriptions for the future are less sure-footed. He reminds us that “democracy is not the timeless fulfilment of our political destiny. It is not a way of doing politics that has always been with us, or that will be our companion for the rest of our history.” He coins the term “monitory democracy”, suggesting that political engagement and emancipation are now expressed far more widely than through elected chambers, through the Internet, direct action, NGOs, the media and other bodies. He argues that political liberties and economic prosperity have little in common, but he develops neither this thought nor the many other questions that the past two decades of globalised capitalism have thrown up. Just why have so many people around the world willingly given up certain liberties in return for the promise of prosperity or security?

Peter Kellner’s account is specifically British. As a long-time surveyor of the political scene, he has an uncanny ability to convey the complexities of politics to a wide audience. His book is more of a compendium of historical moments, in which speeches or documents highlighting the successes of, or perils facing, democracy, are listed. The study is compiled chronologically, stretching from Athelstan the Glorious (c. 930) to Paul Dacre (the editor of the Daily Mail, 1998). Students of politics may quibble over some of the choices made from particular years or eras, but Kellner’s selection is invariably apposite, charting the great debates from the emancipation of slaves, to the Corn Laws, to the Irish independence movement, and closer to home, from Roy Jenkins’s proposals on electoral reform to Margaret Thatcher’s myopic Bruges speech.

Yet underlying Kellner’s account is an idealised assumption that we should be proud of our institutions. “The evolution of liberty in Britain has been appallingly slow,” he writes. “But once basic principles have been established, they have tended to stay established.” Perhaps the very fact that Britain has faced so few ructions has instilled in us a complacency that has dulled our sense of the inadequacies of our political system.

That system is now rightly the object of public derision. Yet I fear that derision could lead to a further weakening of our representative democracy, discouraging people from standing for parliament, leading to a new crop of MPs even less talented than the present group. Pride of place in Kellner’s anthology should surely go to Oliver Cromwell and his speech on 19 April 1653 dissolving the rump parliament.

“Ye sordid prostitutes,” he begins. “Have you not defil’d this sacred place, and turn’d the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, are yourselves become the greatest grievance.”

As I write, in the week after the European election results, I marvel at the protector’s prescience.

This article was originally published in the Guardian

Ken Macdonald: The public’s right to know should be engraved on the heart of every legislator

Chandeliers, moats and tennis courts. Who ever imagined it would come to this? With the current controversy over expenses, parliament is at serious risk of inflicting damage upon itself that could take a generation or more to repair.

Of course there are always security issues to be considered whenever data is stolen. And while MPs may have only limited claims to privacy, and none at all where expenses are concerned, they certainly have an unrestricted right to personal safety. Equally, it’s obviously troubling if bank details and passwords are being passed around. Yet at a time like this it is hard to avoid the conclusion that reaching for the police is the worst possible option: in truth we are far beyond that.

A scandal that has been exposed by free speech on the front page of a newspaper cannot be undone by attacking the human right that dragged it out into the daylight. It is painfully obvious that instead of being persuaded that open comment is the crime here, the public will take recent events as the best possible argument for protecting it at all costs.

In trying to keep their expenses secret, parliamentarians fell dangerously out of kilter with an electorate who now feel thoroughly vindicated by the horrors visited upon them. It would be dangerous indeed if the idea got around that Westminster’s most telling response to public anger was an ill-advised attempt to lash out at the gleeful messenger. This may be rough justice, but a little more transparency a little earlier on might have brought us a happier regime less threatened by curious eyes.

The public’s right to know should be engraved on the heart of every legislator. Life would be so much easier for them if they all understood this. It would be especially easier for the rest of us if their Speaker did.

Telegraph tactics enhance democracy

Squalid is the adjective that best describes the approach of our not-so-honourable members of parliament to their own expenses. But what about the journalism that has helped to all but destroy what remaining trust the public had in its elected representatives?

Some legitimate questions have been raised about the tactics deployed by the Daily Telegraph in buying in the information, apparently a CD from a mole inside parliament which had been touted around newspapers for months.

Cheque-book journalism is a time-honoured tactic of British newspapers, often revealing tawdry stories about celebrities that have little to do with free expression and more to do with prying into people’s private lives.

But in this instance, the Telegraph has surely acted in the public interest. Indeed, all the facts surrounding the case suggest that the newspaper has –– far from undermining our democracy –– helped to enhance it.

MPs, it should be remembered, fought tooth and nail to try to exempt themselves and the details of their 88-pence bath plugs and black glittered toilet seats from the public gaze. When they were forced to publish the information, they sought to time the release to coincide with the summer holidays. Then, instead of dealing with the issues in hand, the stock response of some parliamentary authorities was to call in the police to investigate wrongdoing and to attempt to change the rules by ensuring the expenses will not be published in future.

My critique of the British press is somewhat different to former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s who, in one of his valedictory speeches as prime minister, described the British media as “feral”. Certainly there are many valid concerns around standards, around accountability (journalists’ expenses chits would also make for amusing reading), and around attention spans in the 24-hour news culture.

But by far the worst trait of the modern-day profession is a lack of fearless investigation.

One former reporter turned government press officer once told me how shocked he was, when moving across into the state sector, to see how little the public actually knew about what was being done in their name. Editors are frightened by the UK’s draconian libel laws; they are concerned about their day-to-day budgets, and they are interested mainly in “quick hits” rather than difficult holding the powerful to account.

And what of the media’s purported role as an “advocate of democracy”? I have heard this one thrown around in recent days. This school of thought argues that journalism has a “responsibility” to “promote” our democratic norms.

No it does not. It must act professionally, but one of its main preoccupations should be putting into the public domain information that the authorities would rather people do not know. It is then for readers or viewers to draw their own conclusions about the quality of our public representatives. Respect is not an entitlement. It is a reward for principle, duty — and good behaviour.

This post was originally published at Reuters Great Debate