This sting against Vince Cable is a blow to our democracy

This post was written by Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on December 22, 2010
Posted Under: Media,Uncategorized

It has been an uncomfortable 24 hours for Vince Cable. Yesterday the Telegraph published secret recordings of the business secretary speaking to a couple of journalists who posed as his constituents. He will certainly  find it more difficult to look  cabinet colleagues in the eye after boasting of his “nuclear” capacity to bring down the government.

I hold Cable in the same  low esteem the hold the Lib Con administration. And it is not because of any concern for his well being that I am angered by the Telegraph’s actions. Rather, it is out of concern for our democracy.

After Geoff Hoon  was filmed offering his services to a fictional American company, MPs may have become a little more cautious in their dealings with corporate lobbyists – surely a salutary outcome. By contrast, the sting on Cable may  have a chilling effect, not on relations amongst political and corporate elites, but on conversations between politicians and ordinary constituents.

The capacity for MPs to engage with their electors is the cornerstone of our democracy. And this can only be undermined by suspicions that conversations are being secretly and dishonestly recorded, or that constituents are not really constituents. This is unlikely to worry Telegraph journalists who, by virtue of their position, enjoy priveleged access to the corridors of power. Yet it is a blow to any citizen hoping to have more than a stilted conversation with the person legislating on their behalf. When you wear a mask, you damage not only the person that you fool, but also the one that you impersonate.

It would be ridiculous to argue that journalists should never break confidences, or engage in subterfuge. Yet such actions are justified  by what they are able to illuminate. Whatever one thinks of the latest Wikileaks revelations, they can at least be said to have revealed genuine truths about relations between politically significant individuals. By contrast, this Telegraph operation has merely enlightened us about what Vince Cable said to two fictional characters. We now know what the business secretary said to two pretend constituents. The subterfuge didn’t reveal a story. Rather, it was the story. (Unless, that is, you think that tensions in a coalition government can be called a “news story”.)

All of this reflects the way in which “transparency” has become something of a fetish, not so much a means to an end, but an end in itself. Important though transparency can be, it is not synonymous with democracy or liberty. A democratic society is built upon a broad spectrum of  relationships, some open and all encompassing, and others not so much. The great French revolutionaries were, for example, correct to see political associations as the life blood of any democracy. It is crucial that citizens should be able to gather together to pursue common ends, to discuss matters amongst themselves, and to form organisations with an internal as well as an external existence. The liberty to whisper matters, as well as the liberty to broadcast.

Yet many now see such civil society rights as irrelevant. The Telegraph was unapologetic when it recently explained how it had “infiltrated” the organising meetings of student activists. One of the more famous, nominally left, blogs has a habit of posting up the internal correspondence of trade union activists. Meanwhile, Assange has made clear that he will  now turn his attention away from the states and towards private organisation. While the talk is of an expose on the banks, it is unclear who will be next. It is, after all, unclear what limits exist to Assange’s ethic of transparency, or whether it is hitched to any grander political ends.

A society in which we must choose between speaking to everybody or speaking to no-one may epitomise “transparency”, but it certainly does not maximise our political freedom.

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Reader Comments

It’s also damaging as it’s removed the one person who was likely to have blocked Murdoch. Even the EU didn’t consider that Murdoch’s takeover would have damaged competition in the media

Written By Belinda on December 22nd, 2010 @ 9:39 am

Thanks Reuben – your point about the mask that diminishes both the real speaker and the audience is true. Although I’m not sure I’d ever go into a meeting with an MP or other elected representative with the expectation that they would be utterly frank. But they -and I- should both expect that conversation to be happening between us as who we say we are.

On this subject, Assange – I found his R4 interview yesterday troubling because he was obviously trying to maintain a balance between being candid and being cautious – aware that everything he was saying was going to be listened to an analysed. I was surprised at how badly he pulled it off and just came over as obfuscatory, blustering, and slightly misogynistic. On your point about him, I have a feeling his ethic of transparency is only, ahem, transparent to him. There may be many positive outcomes to Wikileaks (argh what is a positive outcome anyway) – but I think he’s actually a bit mad. Incomprehensible.

Written By Gloria on December 22nd, 2010 @ 11:22 am

Surely the thing to do then is to maintain a political persona that is consistent? I somehow doubt Jeremy Corbyn could be embarrassed in such a way?

Written By Roger on December 22nd, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

‘there will be time, there will be time
to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’

I think this discussion is fascinating, and I feel one that will grow in importance. In this particular instance and alongside the two stories published today I would tend to agree with Roger – a politicians role goes beyond acting according to their own conscience – and even if it is too much to ask them to embody a set of particular principles – consistency, and a certain sense of propriety are vital. All those caught out in this sting have seemed vainglorious. They have not held discreet private conversations with constituents but boasted of their power games to strangers – I’m not sure how conversations of this nature would ever be of benefit to constituents. On balance pricking the egos of those who should no better is a good thing, and though it may seem a pity that Cable won’t be there to block Murdoch – I doubt on the evidence of what he’s achieved so far, his ability to do it. (By his own admission his only fall back is resignation, and he wouldn’t do that over Murdoch. The decision will ultimately be Cameron’s. And it doesn’t matter anyway, Murdoch’s empire is thankfully in decline.)

But what of the more significant question? Do we live in a society that truly tolerates free speech and are they’re instances where it should be limited? Should one simply set up a narrow principle and abide by it or adopt a more heuristic approach?

I think the paradox is that we have seen a great spate of heralded revelations – MPs expenses, the growing scope of Wikileaks and so on – but the very fact these garner such attention, is the proof that they are unusual – the duckhouse is still the story, extraordinary rendition is still the story, Cable’s ‘nuclear option’ is still the story – there is a public appetite to know these things, precisely because we have given incredible leeway to those in power to hide their motives, and especially because they are very rarely held accountable. There are many more things that we don’t know than we do: we don’t know exactly on what terms the coalition was formed for example, just as we don’t exactly why a coalition between the Labour and the Lib Dems failed – these were private conversations but I’m far from persuaded that the privacy of these discussions was in the national interest.

I’d go so far as to say scrutiny should never affect a reasoned, principled position; the only defence for private speech in government is surely where wider revelation of it would cause harm that is reasonably forseeable? A politician, by the nature of his role, should sacrifice such freedom – because he isn’t speaking simply for himself ever – though to extend this requirement further into private life, as your rightly say, would lead to a different kind of tyranny.

And yet here is the paradox – the more effectively government/power can be held to account by the people/those outside – by having its hypocrisies, it lies and subterfuges revealed – the more oppressive it becomes. The reaction to wikileaks is more significant than anything yet revealed by the leaks: a strange over reaction – at once a show of awesome power but equally shows up a government with a desperate lack of confidence in it’s own legitimacy.

Adam Curtis has written interesting about a man called Tyler Kent on his blog

Tyler Kent was an attache in the US embassy in London at the start of World War 2 who intended to leak documents – conversations between Roosevelt and Churchill, in which Roosevelt promised to join the war – a revelation that might have scuppered Roosevelt’s chances of becoming President in the 1940 election (when 80% of American’s opposed involvement and Roosevelt himself was claiming he wouldn’t join the fight). Kent was caught before he could leak the documents. The story is interesting and Curtis’ blog is excellent on it.

What interests me though is the difference in treatment given to Tyler Kent compared to that of Bradley Manning, the supposed source of the US embassies leak.

Tyler Kent was given a trial within a few months of being caught, he had so far as I can tell a fair trial, in which he was given representation and allowed to speak for himself. The final stages were even made public. Kent was sent to prison for 7 years. Britain was at this point at war with the Nazis, losing and Kent was a foreign national.

By contrast Bradley Manning is a US citizen held in his own country. He is suspected of being the leak, but he has not been charged. He has been held in solitary confinement for nearly a year, in a tiny cell without bedding, without visitors while his family and friends have been continuously harassed. He is being threatened with a 52 year prison sentence. And yet the documents he leaked have so far had seemingly no impact on governance in the US or increased the threats the country faces. Clearly very senior people have had conversations in private – conversations that will never be made public – but which one guess have a great deal to do with finding a scapegoat and extracting vengeance. But precisely nothing to do with justice.

Yet this infringement of human rights, this gross illiberality, seems barely questioned by the mainstream media.

Though Assange is clearly a monomaniac, and the wikileaks project essentially anarchic – I can’t help but feel it’s right to support them. The only power they have at present is to embarrass people. The people they are embarrassing however have the gall to disregard habeas corpus without a thought, even worse than that they disregard it, and think they’re right.

Written By JWA on December 24th, 2010 @ 1:03 am

is transparency required in a democracy to ensure representation? I think this question needs further discussion before we can make a judgement on the merit of Wikileaks + Telegraph stings.

Written By Luke on December 24th, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

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