“Transparent” is the new “progressive”. Oh goody.

by Tom Harris

Did I hear correctly? Did David Cameron actually say that every meeting or discussion any MP has with a journalist should have to be registered from now on?

No, he didn’t, actually. Though that’s how some outlets were reporting the Prime Minister’s views when he made his statement on the News International inquiry last Wednesday. All ministers should register such encounters, and the opposition should follow suit, he slyly suggested.

Can you imagine the panic that must have gone through both front benches at that point? What, tell the world that I’m having a drink with So-And-So from the Daily Whatever tonight? What happens when So-And-So’s byline appears on a story in tomorrow’s edition revealing that “a senior minister/front bencher” is unhappy with the leadership of “the leader/Prime Minister”? The ancient right to stab one’s leader in the back while being nice to his face is sacrosanct and was even included in Magna Carta. Probably.

And it would be extremely foolhardy to risk it and not register such an encounter, what with all these nosey bloody parliamentary researchers desperate to spot MPs having discreet conversations with journalists and email them to EyeSpyMP on Twitter.

This all smacks of the silly and damaging one-upmanship that prevailed during the expenses crisis of 2009; remember when Gordon and Harriet were reported as wishing to ban all MPs from having outside interests on the basis that it would damage the Tories more than us? They had to settle instead for the half-way house of forcing MPs to declare every penny of outside income, however small, and to invent a figure for the time spent earning it (“Harris, T: writing a post for Labour Uncut – four and a half minutes – remuneration nil”).

In an ideal world, of course, there would be nothing wrong in registering every conversation we have with journalists; “transparency” is the new “progressive”, dontcha know?

But politics is about more than transparency. It is about deals, it is about secrets, it is about discretion. You may not like that, but then, I don’t like the fact that Twitter on a Saturday afternoon is dominated by baffling comments about football, but I still have to get used to it.

Transparency may well put an end to covert briefings, but the “politics” we would end up with would be at best anodyne and at worst, dysfunctional. Arguing for every discussion with a reporter to be made public is a bit like the arguments that prime ministers should be forced to answer the actual question at PMQs: great in theory but unworkable in practice.

And if transparency is your ultimate goal, remember this: there are an awful lot of revelations made under cover of anonymity, and far fewer of them would be made if their sources were identified.

In the same way that Freedom of Information rules are now circumvented by ministers using email using Gmail accounts and phone conversations and text exchanges using ministers’ and spads’ personal phones, so any new rule about politician-journalist relationships would be easily foiled using personal or home phones. And quite right too.

The thing to remember here is that Cameron suggested this not to improve the transparency of that evil machine known as politics, but to try to look as if he was back on the front foot over the hacking scandal. He must have known such an idea was bonkers but, hey, if it looks like that Miliband bloke hasn’t thought of it yet, let’s go for it!

As for myself, I shall continue to have lunches, dinners, coffees and beers with any journalist I like (provided s/he pays for them, of course – parliamentary expenses don’t stretch far these days). Our conversations will continue to be private, and unless they describe their source as “an unidentified, tall, Scottish ex- minister, ex-blogger MP representing a Glasgow seat”, then I will be content.

Tom Harris is Labour MP for Glasgow South.

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4 Responses to ““Transparent” is the new “progressive”. Oh goody.”

  1. Daragh McDowell says:

    This is another depressingly typical entry in Tom Harris’ knee-jerk salvos against even the most minor political reform. First off he makes the classic mistake that ‘politics in Britain= only politics going on in the world.’ Plenty of countries have robust transparency rules in their politics, and work better than Britain as a result. This is a repeat of the AV referendum where Tom took the side in opposition to democracy, buttressed by a number of illogical arguments that only made the slightest bit of sense if you ignored every other democratic country on earth.

    The fact of the matter is that Harris is a long standing Blairite apparatchik, who hasn’t faced a competitive election since his selection convention and wants to keep it that way. Anything that places even the slightest check on the power of him and his buddies, or places further responsibilities upon them, is to his mind a bad thing, regardless of the wider political issues. Hence his stance on IPSA, AV and now this.

  2. Elliot Kane says:

    I think Cameron sees this as a wonderful chance to exert even greater control over his party, honestly. If he manages to clamp down on them enough, he probably reasons, they’ll be forced to do whatever he wants.

    A foolish attitude that will end his career sooner rather than later, if pushed too far. But, from what I can tell, entirely typical of the man.

    If Labour gets hit too, I think that would be an added bonus, for him, but that’s all.

  3. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    I had thought the idea of recording all meetings between MPs and journalists was a terrible one: bureaucratic; of limited informational value to anyone except conspiracy theorists and easy to subvert.

    Now I realise the great advantage it would give. Shutting Tom Harris up.

  4. Paul Evans says:

    Labour’s problem with this is that it’s not given any political context to the word ‘transparency’ and allowed it to become a catch-all for anyone who wants to take a rival down. Don’t attack people for what they do – just demand transparency from them to stop them from doing anything.

    I don’t think Labour fully understood how central the idea of demanding transparency from regulators was to the new right project, or what the opportunities are now of demanding the same standards that are applied to MPs being applied to lobbyists, directors of corpororations (particularly media owners who have an additional responsibility) and commercial pressure groups.

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