This is an article I wrote forThe Guardian.
Is it an invasion of privacy to show Caroline Flint’s notes glinting in the spring sunshine as she walked past photographers in Downing Street? How can politicians work if their every scribble is subject to the public gaze? Was this an invasion of her privacy? Of course not.
Downing Street is not a private place and this was fair game. If it had been leaked by the usual methods then we would all have been grateful for the information. The irony is that independent analysts have confirmed that the note is entirely accurate and sensible. The fact that it admits “we don’t know how bad it will get” was a welcome sign of frankness.
The only compromising element was that the minister needed to be reminded to tell cabinet that ‘they are on the people’s side’.
But the transparent plastic folder revealed a much bigger issue than what Caroline Flint thinks about house prices. The fact is that this sort of information on government policy and even tactics should have been freely available in the first place.
If politicians were more open about what they do then perhaps the media wouldn’t have to resort to long-lens tricks. Hazel Blears says she wants to connect government with the public but her ideas sound like just another PR fest of stunts and gestures. Holding the cabinet in Crewe or Swindon will not give us any more insight into what they actually talking about.
Political Correspondents tell me that it is still very difficult to get information out of government. Despite all the lovely websites and email press releases, the Departments are still hopeless at giving straight answers with factual evidence. And despite Gordon’s announcement of the death of spin, political presentation still dominates public communications.
The 10p tax fiasco is a good example. From Gordon Brown downwards the government sought to manage this as a PR problem rather than addressing the real issues. Instead of being honest about who won and who lost they completely ignored any difficult questions until the position crumbled under the onslaught of Frank Field. The media was slow to cut through the denials but finally woke up to the real public anger. The result? Belated honesty and a fairly sensible policy change.
The problem is an excess of policy privacy. And Gordon Brown’s style has encouraged a culture of concealment around tactics, too. So when the spin goes out of control, the damage is greater. This is partly why he took such as hit over the election that never was.
A combination of 24 hour news, political bloggers, digital cameras and the Internet means that politicians are under more scrutiny than ever before. But this is actually a good thing and a chance to enhance our political culture. It is time to embrace networked politics.
The only way to drive cynicism out of our political culture is more openness combined with greater public involvement in both politics and the media.
So why not tell us what the government really thinks about the housing market? Why not publish the agenda of all cabinet? Why not publish briefing notes that describe the options facing politicians? Put it all online and then let the journalists and the citizens join Caroline Flint in her discussions. After all, we are all on the people’s side.