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.