The Daily Telegraph has come in for a surprising degree of criticism from commentators across the political spectrum - from Mehdi Hasan
in the New Statesman to Bagehot
in The Economist - for the sting operation it has mounted against Vince Cable, the Business Secretary.
Both in essence question the Telegraph's "public interest" defence in using what is widely regarded as a dubious and underhand technique against a cabinet minister.
This is Hasan's take: "Where's the public interest argument for undercover journos secretly recording the gossipy views of an MP inside his constituency surgery? I can't see it."
And Bagehot: "The balance between subterfuge and the public interest is like a finely-balanced pair of scales. The more subterfuge a newspaper uses, the weightier the public interest defence that is needed... I am not sure the import of what he said... was so great as to justify their skulduggery."
The implication is that undercover reporting like that used by The Telegraph here is, or should be, a kind of journalistic nuclear option, to borrow a phrase from the unfortunate Cable. It should only be used to uncover criminal activity on the part of the victim, or expose major issues surrounding great matters of state. Cable's amusing views on the abilities, policies and ethics of his Conservative colleagues in government, no less than his entertaining estimation of his own importance, clearly do not meet such criteria.
Did he deserve to be exposed therefore? I still think the answer has to be yes. Members of the public do not necessarily expect or believe members of a governing party (or parties) to sign up to every last dot and comma of government policy - nor to like or trust all of their colleagues. But for a senior member of a government to support his administration when speaking formally and to be so caustic and dismissive in informal conversation is simply not acceptable. If he has such serious qualms about his colleagues and their ideas, he should not be on the front bench and, indeed, should not be using his vote in the Commons to keep it in power.
Was Cable entitled to regard the conversation with his constituents as private? Hasan, for instance, invokes the right to privacy and confidentiality inside the constituency surgery. But surely that right, to the extent that it exists, is there to protect the constituent not the MP. Democratic accountability breaks down if a minister feels no obligation to defend his own government policies to the people who voted for him.
Moreover, to what extent could the conversation be described as private in the first place? Cable would certainly have reason to feel aggrieved had The Telegraph miked up a couple of his friends and lured him into indiscretion that way; but he was speaking to his alleged constituents in his public capacity as their MP. That is some way from private.
If cabinet government is to mean anything, it surely means that there is collective responsibility for decisions; the alternative is to deceive the public about who stands for what, when, with the political equivalent of smoke and mirrors. (Simon Heffer
has developed this point, too.) We cannot accept a situation where a minister publicly opposes a government policy but nevertheless votes it through. On what are we to judge someone in such circumstances? In part it is a practical matter, but it is also a moral one. If the Business Secretary does not accept such responsibilities to the public, it is in the public interest to know, and The Telegraph is justified in exposing it. Cable is attempting to delude us - and, looking at the transcript, perhaps even himself - about his support for the government of which he is a key member.
Alastair Campbell says in his blog
on the subject, "someone should tell him that once you reach a certain level in politics, it is wise to assume encounters with complete strangers are ‘on the record".'
Someone should also tell him to grow up. There is honour in both front bench responsibility and back bench opposition. Indeed, both are responsible positions. But where is the honour when you shrug off your responsibilities to both colleagues and constituents so lightly?
Labels: Vince Cable; coalition; journalism