Think tank events often take place under ‘Chatham House Rules’ – which allows speakers to make off-the-record contributions. I sometimes feel that such occasions would be considerably enlivened if they also observed Marquess of Queensberry Rules. Indeed, it may come to that should any of those responsible for secretly recording an increasing number of these meetings ever be caught in the act.
This isn’t an entirely new problem, but according to a Chris Mason briefing for BBC News, it’s getting worse:
“Let me introduce you to the must have political gadget right now: the tape recorder…
“The think tank seminar, so often the sole preserve of the untreatable political nerd, has a pulling power at the moment motivated by a spot of skulduggery…
“This is not the place to hear the 20 second slogan, but the detailed, ad lib, thinking out loud.
“And the audiences are often partisan, the majority inclined to support one party or the other.
“All of which might just lull the unsuspecting politician into saying something their opponents can shout about, ring up a friendly newspaper with, and invariably be quoted saying ‘such and such has let the cat out of the bag…’”
A growing list of politicians, including Andy Burnham, Oliver Letwin and Nicky Morgan have been caught thinking aloud into a concealed tape recorder. Except that it’s not actually a tape recorder, but its modern equivalent – “any handheld, furtive little gizmo that allows a bit of secretive, if grainy, recording.”
Chris Mason describes the sort of person most likely to making the recording “as an enterprising researcher or intern.” Well, that’s one way of putting it, another is “dishonourable little creep”.
Our political culture, which is already dying from terminal blandness, will get blander still if everything our politicians say in any forum is effectively on-the-record. They might as well not bother attending policy seminars and round tables at all – just send round their press officers with the latest spin sheet.
It’s a great shame that actual tape isn’t used for secret recordings anymore – because it could be woven into a noose so that justice might be administered in poetic form. That said, the think tank snitches shouldn’t be alone on the scaffold. For instance, they ought be joined by those who abuse the system of freedom of information (FOI) requests to get hold of private government correspondence. I’m all for transparency, but if ministers and their advisers can’t think aloud in either public or private then they won’t think at all – or, at least, they’ll keep their most interesting thoughts to themselves when the essence of good governance is imagination allied to communication.
The biggest villains of the lot are the politicians who’ve allowed politics to be corrupted by spin doctors and PR spivs. These characters literally deal in information, turning what should be freely shared with the public – through our Parliamentary institutions – into a currency used to buy favours from the media.
As with any other currency, maintaining its value depends on monopoly control. Keeping MPs ‘on message’ isn’t so much about clarity as cornering the market in news. Of course, any currency that does keep its value is worth stealing. Those “enterprising researchers” with recording devices about their revolting persons are therefore the pick-pockets of the Westminster village – informational cut-purses hoping to prey on politicians in their unguarded moments.
If thinking politicians want to regain their right to free speech then they must speak freely. When they have official policy to communicate they should do so publicly in Parliament, not in the form of privileged briefings to favoured journalists; and when they have anything further to add, they should do so unashamedly as grown-up, freeborn Britons entitled to their own ideas and speculations.