After another a week which began with the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne trailing his own Parliamentary announcements – this time on the future of the banking industry – a Conservative MP close to the Prime Minister has defended the practice of government by leaking.
Nick Boles, a founder member of the Notting Hill Set of Conservative activists who backed David Cameron’s bid for the Tory leadership, told fellow MPs that the “public’s right to know” was more important than giving the House of Commons “a monopoly on first communication of the government’s decisions.”
He readily acknowledged – and defended – the fact that modern government had become “a leaky sieve”. But it was, for example, because George Osborne’s proposals in the autumn statement had been trailed so effectively in advance, that the public’s “awareness and understanding” of the difficulties of the current economic situation was “far higher” than if nothing had been released in advance.
Boles was among Conservative MPs who opposed an unsuccessful attempt by another Tory backbencher Philip Hollobone (5.12.2011) to give the Speaker power to ask the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee to investigate cases where ministers broke the ministerial code by failing to ensure that when the House was in session the “most important announcements are made in the first instance to Parliament.”
But such was his enthusiastic rendition from Alastair Campbell’s hymn book on the manipulation of the news media, that Boles quite forgot to address the fundamental flaws in what has now become the institutionalised leaking of government announcements across Westminster and Whitehall.
He made no mention of the inherent dangers in the practice of trailing sensitive decisions on an exclusive and anonymous basis to favoured news outlets in return for sympathetic news coverage. Nor did he address the democratic deficit resulting from a failure to provide a level playing field for all sections of the news media and not simply those outlets happy to collude in the promotion of “good news” announcements.
His central point was that Parliament could no longer behave “like a priesthood” which regarded itself as the only gathering capable of considering matters of state; he believed that in 2011 the duty of MPs was to strike a balance between Parliament’s essential role in holding the government to account and the public’s right to know what ministers were doing “as soon as possible.”
Boles said it would be a mistake to think that parliament had, for example, the “monopoly on the first communication” of decisions which had a financial or military sensitivity.
Given his work before becoming an MP as director of the Conservative-leaning think tank the Policy Exchange – and his current role as parliamentary private secretary to the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb – Boles has to be commended for the honesty of his of admission that Cameron & Co have become wholehearted practitioners of Alastair Campbell’s edict that the priority for the government’s information service is to “grab the agenda” in a crowded media market place.
Another Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg also acknowledged the difficulties ministers faced when having to contend with the demands of 24/7 news coverage. He said both Labour and Conservative governments had increasingly leaked statements because it gave them “control of the news agenda” and an extra advantage over the Opposition.
Rees-Mogg sympathised with the predicament which the coalition government faced in seeking to maintain control through its ability to leak announcements while at same time wishing to honour the ministerial code.
But while the party in power always had as many “press officers, briefers and leakers” as it wanted, he reminded his Conservative colleagues that they too might end up back in opposition and have the dice loaded against them, so it was important to ensure that the government of the day could be held to account.
Thomas Docherty was one of several Labour MPs who rounded on government for having fallen into the habit of considering that “no announcement was too big or small” to be given to the media before being announced in the House of Commons.
No fewer than three Secretaries of State had been admonished by the Speaker during the preceding month for having leaked announcements from their departments but he said not a single minister, parliamentary private secretary or special adviser had been found to have breached the rules.
Docherty thought the Speaker should have greater powers to ensure that statements were made first to the House of Commons in either oral or written form before being “punted” on to morning radio and television programmes such as Today, BBC Breakfast News or ITV’s Daybreak.
He argued that the reality behind the tactic of trailing announcements was no surprise: the government wanted to get its version out first and in fact it was all “about softening bad news”. Therefore by leaking the whole of the autumn statement the previous weekend, George Osborne had simply been hoping to deflect attention from an economy that continued to flat-line; his aim had been to “try to soften that bad news.”
Before Philip Hollobone’s proposal was defeated by 228 votes to 119, MPs regaled the chamber with their own examples of government manipulation by leaks.
Greg Knight, chairman of the Procedure Committee, deplored the widespread trailing of the contents of George Osborne’s autumn statement and said the most blatant example was the leaking of the plan to reduce tolls on the Humber Bridge. BBC television news in Humberside ran the announcement “word for word” twenty four hours before it was announced in the House and local MPs were lined up on the bridge to give interviews as the leak occurred.
Ms Angela Eagle, shadow leader of the House, accused Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary, of “astonishing discourtesy” for having tweeted to the world that he was about to make an energy statement thirty minutes before his Opposition shadow was informed by an environment journalist at The Guardian; an hour later the statement was leaked to the same journalist and on the paper’s website hours before Huhne delivered his statement in the Commons.
She accepted that there was cut-throat competition in the media and a battle to obtain “breaking news” first. “Thus the trade in exclusive first access to important government announcements in exchange for favourable and uncritical coverage of the good bits appears to benefit ministers and the media outlets alike.” Ms Eagle could hardly have delivered a more succinct explanation for the reasons why government by leaking rules OK!
Illustrations: I 19 December, 2011; City AM 7 December, 2011
Nicholas Jones 21.12.2011