Transparency, what transparency?

Justin SchlosbergThis post was written by Justin Schlosberg, Lecturer in journalism and media, in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.

In 2011, as the phone-hacking scandal unfolded, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged a new era of transparency in the government’s dealings with the media. All meetings between senior government and media figures were to be recorded and published on a quarterly basis and a major public inquiry was launched – partly with a focus on the relationship between press and politicians.

The Leveson hearings that followed cast an unprecedented spotlight on the intimacy of these relations complete with gossip, threats, family get-togethers and texts signed off with ‘lots of love’ and kisses. It had very little to do with the day-to-day interactions between politicians and journalists – both on and off the record – which are an intrinsic part of the political newsgathering process. It revealed instead something over and above those interactions – an exclusive club at the heart of the establishment that seemed to undermine the very fabric of British democracy, and underline the growing public mistrust of both politicians and the media.

Within this dynamic, Leveson was pre-occupied with the flow of influence from media owners to politicians. The founding premise of his inquiry was that press power was out of control, undermining the integrity of government, parliament and the police, whilst severely infringing on the privacy rights of individual citizens. Leveson’s detractors, on the other hand, perceived the gravest threat to democracy as operating in the other direction. It was creeping state control of the press – supposedly heralded by his reform proposals – which threatened to fatally undermine the independence of the fourth estate. In the intense debate that followed, a fundamental truth was obscured: media and political elites are not rivals but partners in a relationship that works ultimately to promote the shared interests of power. This was vividly demonstrated when Rebecca Brooks – former editor of the News of the World – told Leveson that the Prime Minister had sent her a consoling text during the height of the scandal, apologising for not being able to be more ‘loyal’ to her in public.

And as the spotlight began to fade, business as usual resumed – behind closed doors – and the hollow rhetoric of transparency was laid bare. For a start, it soon became clear from published data that the government had no intention of divulging any meaningful details about its meetings with media bosses. Whilst the nature and purpose of other external meetings are often specified, when it comes to newspaper editors or execs, we rarely get anything beyond ‘general discussion’.

Of course, this spectacle of transparency is nothing new. After taking office in 2010, Cameron renewed the commitment to openness that is typical of incoming governments, promising to pour light into the darkest corners of policymaking. In a nutshell: ministers would be ‘transparent about what [they] do and how [they] do it’ and ‘above improper influence’.

Less than one year later, then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt was at pains to reiterate this commitment in respect of News Corp’s aborted take-over of BSkyB. He stressed the unprecedented openness of the bid process both before and after he waived it through (only to then be withdrawn by News Corp amidst the fall-out from the phone hacking scandal). But the folly of Hunt’s assurances was exposed after he told Parliament in 2012 that he had no unofficial contact with News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel during the bid process. A series of texts disclosed shortly afterward suggested otherwise, with cringe-inducing awkwardness.

Perhaps not surprisingly in the wake of phone hacking, the Prime Minister appears to be steadily curtailing his personal contact with senior media figures, based on data released by the government for 2011-13. Interestingly though, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood is more than picking up the slack, with ten recorded meetings with the media in 2012 and fourteen in 2013. In contrast, Jeremy Heywood’s predecessor Gus O’Donnell had just two meetings with the media in 2011, one of which was a ‘reception’ hosted by the Financial Times.  This raises the possibility that some of the business of media management by the government (or vice versa) is increasingly being conducted through the civil service, perhaps in an effort to remain under the radar. In any case, given that Leveson’s focus was elsewhere, the spike in contact between the Cabinet Secretary and the media warrants scrutiny.

The first thing to note is that like his ministerial colleagues, the Cabinet Secretary’s contact with the media is overwhelmingly concentrated in the national press: of the twenty four meetings in 2012-13, just three were with broadcasters (BBC and ITN). This could be because of a received wisdom in government that the national press remain leaders of the wider news agenda. Or it could be because newspaper editors and proprietors are more active than broadcasters in lobbying the government for influence and/or ‘scoops’. Or it could also be because the government is conscious of the broadcasters’ regulated impartiality, whereas newspapers may be seen as more malleable targets in agenda building strategies.

In any case, the imbalance illustrates how much newspapers still matter to Whitehall, for all the talk of their demise. But it is not just newspaper bosses in general who occupy a disproportionate amount of the Cabinet Secretary’s time. Again, in line with ministerial colleagues, a significant majority of the meetings were with representatives of the right wing press. Of the ten meetings Jeremy Heywood had with the media in 2012, seven were with the Times, Telegraph, Mail and Spectator, all openly aligned with the Conservative party; two were with non-partisan outlets (the Economist and ITN) and one with the left-leaning Guardian newspaper.

This may simply reflect the market dominance of the right-wing press in Britain. It is perhaps understandable that if the Cabinet Secretary is going to meet regularly with the press, he would want to prioritise those titles that have the biggest audience reach, regardless of their political colours. But it doesn’t explain why most of his meetings are with the elite press – broadsheets and periodicals – with very limited exposure compared to the mid-market and tabloid titles. Again, there are a number of plausible explanations here. It could be that mid-market and tabloid editors and executives aren’t very interested in talking to government bureaucrats. It could be because the ‘serious’ news sector is particularly valued in Whitehall for its opinion-leading reputation and its elite audience capture. Or it could just be because these titles have the capacity to cover political issues with greater depth and complexity than their lower brow competitors.

Whatever the reason, the opacity of these meetings appeared to take something of a sinister turn in 2013. After the Guardian began publishing details of mass surveillance by the security services in June 2012, revealed by NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden, the Cabinet Secretary unusually held two meetings in short succession at the Guardian’s offices. A Freedom of Information request for details of these and other meetings with the senior newspaper figures has recently been refused and is currently under review by the Information Commissioner. According to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in an interview with the author, he was explicitly threatened with legal injunctions during his meetings with the Cabinet Secretary, unless he agreed to destroy hard drives of the leaked material. The only account we have from the government is the notes recorded in the meeting data. The first meeting was described simply as a ‘discussion about handling information’ whilst the follow-up apparently moved on to ‘discussion about international issues’.

In the end, the newspaper acceded to the government’s demands, confident that destruction of the hard drives would not curtail reporting. Copies of the material lodged with US publishing partners would apparently ensure the story’s endurance. Glen Greenwald, former lead journalist on the story for the Guardian and now with the Intercept, recently claimed that the biggest story relating to the leaks is yet to be published. But he made no mention of what or when, and we are left wondering whether the government’s actions had really been as futile as Rusbridger suggested.

Rusbridger himself opted initially not to make public the threatening nature of his meetings with the Cabinet Secretary, or indeed the unprecedented event that followed, with security service personnel entering the Guardian’s offices to oversee destruction of the offending hard drives. A month later the Guardian despatched David Miranda, Greenwald’s partner, to meet Laura Poitras (another Snowden confidante and co-architect of the story) in Germany, perhaps in an effort to get around the loss of direct access to the material.  According to Rusbridger, the rise in international travel was due to the necessity of face to face meetings as ‘we assumed everything was being at that point intercepted’.  But on his return to Brazil, Miranda was arrested and detained at Heathrow Airport under anti-terror laws, prompting Rusbridger to publicise the extraordinary lengths the government was going to in order to restrain the coverage.

But what about the other meetings that took place around the same time between the Cabinet Secretary and the national press? Apparently, the purpose, nature and outcome of these meetings are also exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, partly in order to protect policymaking. But the use of this exemption (under Section 35 of the Act) raises more questions than it answers, perhaps the most obvious of which is what policy exactly do these meetings concern? In apparently typical fashion, the Cabinet Office made no attempt to explain why exemptions under Section 35 were engaged, or provide any detail as to the public interest test that is required under law.

It is fundamental to a functioning democracy that the media are seen to be free from undue influence or interference by the state and, conversely, that government and policymaking is free from undue influence or interference by the media. Over the last two years, these twin and sometimes conflicting concerns have become matters of acute public interest, fuelled by Leveson and Snowden alike. But the government’s refusal to disclose information about these meetings speaks to a wider problem. It exposes the gap between transparency rhetoric and substance which ensures that the real workings of power remain off limits to public scrutiny. It is a gap now so wide that official talk of transparency in media policymaking is tantamount to double-speak.

You can find links to the correspondence between the author and FOI authorities in the following places:

http://www.lse.ac.uk//media@lse/documents/MPP/First-Reply-to-FOI-request-on-Cabinet-meetings-with-media.pdf

http://www.lse.ac.uk//media@lse/alumni/documents/Appeal-on-FOI-319677—request-for-internal-review.pdf

http://www.lse.ac.uk//media@lse/documents/MPP/Response-to-appeal-on-FOI319677-for-Cabinet-meetings-with-Media.pdf

More blog posts by Justin Schlosberg:

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Used or abused? 10 serious issues raised by FoI requests

Dr Ben WorthyThis article was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy. It was originally published on The Conversation.

A Freedom of Information request lodged on a quiet news day by a journalist has revealed that more than 800 police officers in England and Wales have been investigated for breaching social media guidelines over the past five years.

Quite apart from showing us that the police, like many other public bodies, find it difficult to control what its members do on Twitter, the story raises the importance of the Freedom of Information Act, which comes under regular fire for, according to the prime minister, David Cameron: “furring up the arteries” of government.

The Local Government Association recently published a list of ten “silly” FoI requests. While not arguing that all such requests are like this, the implied point is that FoI is being “abused”.

This complaint mirrors the comments of Tony Blair in his memoirs:

The truth is that the FoI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick: ‘Hey, try this instead’ and handing them a mallet. The information is neither sought because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on ‘the people’. It’s used as a weapon.

It also fits with concerns from a stream of other ministers and officials that FoI stops records being created and hampers decision-making. It is likely to feed into the recent government announcement of a consultation on whether the act is, indeed, being abused.

Little is known about FoI requesters. The pattern appears to be broadly that a variety of people and groups use it for a whole variety of reasons. Most FoI requests go to local government, the largest user group (contrary to Blair’s claim) are the public and, high-profile cases aside, many use FoI for “micro-political” issues, such as dealing with a pothole or planning application.

As a response to the list, I’d like to offer my own list of ten serious issues revealed by FOI requests.

  1. Extraordinary rendition – the UK’s involvement was revealed by FoI requests from the All-Party Group.
  2. Details of the Universal Credit welfare reforms.
  3. The Libor banking scandal and knowledge of it.
  4. Lists of visitors to the prime ministerial residence at Chequers (and ministerial meetings and diaries now proactively released).
  5. The use (and, it turned out, abuse) of passes to parliament.
  6. Creation of the famous “Weapons of Mass Destruction” dossier.
  7. The monarch’s involvement in vetoing legislation.
  8. The results of local restaurant hygiene inspections that helped create http://www.scoresonthedoors.org.uk/.
  9. The salaries of senior academics and NHS officials.
  10. The planned closure of local libraries up and down the country.

Keeping them honest

Underneath these high-profile cases, our research found a steady stream of accountability stories over planning, car parking and many other issues – just see David Higgerson’s FOI Friday.

The act also helped create IPSA, which regulate MPs’ expenses, led to a change in the law so all members of the House of Lords pay tax in the UK and drove the regular publishing of local government salaries.

This not to say there aren’t “silly” requests, from dragons to zombie attacks (though “silly” is subjective as Jonathan Baines explains, many corruption scandals have been triggered by apparently pointless questions or the piecing together of small bits of information).

Nor is it to claim the act is not taken advantage of – in the UK, and even more in the US, FoI has led to heavy use by business – see this particularly controversial case in Scotland with Phillip Morris seeking access to details of a study of underage smoking.

Yet such requests represent only a minority of the estimated 253,000 requests per year (my own estimates based on the most recent figures for numbers of local government requests in 2010 (192,000) plus the number of requests to central government in 2013 (53,000). On the whole, research indicates that FoI is composed of all sorts of questions, on all sorts of topics, sent in by all sorts of people and groups.

It is this unpredictability that helps make it effective. One local politician told me: “you never know what you will get asked”. The presence of FoI, the possibility of a question, can make someone think twice and even deter them from corrupt or inappropriate behaviour.

There is also an issue of democratic principle. The right to information, championed by radicals such as the Levellers and Diggers centuries ago, means the right to ask questions (to misquote Orwell on liberty) that the powerful may not want you to ask.

It is a democratic right to ask and this may mean some silliness – just as voting may mean non-voting or “silly” voting. Like all parts of a democracy, it is messy and unpredictable and can occasionally go wrong. But in its messiness and unpredictability lies its power.

The Conversation

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