Monday, March 24, 2008


I was talking to Mick from Slugger the other day. He'd been looking at my blog, and he was asking if - taken to a logical conclusion - I'm actually arguing for a complete absence of any external scrutiny upon MPs and the way that they conduct their business?

It's a fair point. As things stand at the moment, I'm broadly against any pressure being placed upon MPs to conduct their business in a more public and accountable way for the reasons that I outlined at (perhaps too much) length here.

I think that Mick was reasonably satisfied with my answer.

But I think it's worth enlarging upon anyway, because, in principle, I suspect that I'd be in favour of a much more open form of government than most of those who would campaign for open government. Broadly, I'd like to see all of the players in public policy-making exposed to the level of scrutiny that politicians are.

I'd like to see
  • full disclosure of all expenditure on lobbying and policy-campaigning by commercial entities, semi-public bodies and pressure groups
  • justification of editorial decisions by newspapers on why they chose to target particular politicians / parties, and on what the provenance of their campaigns are. Is a newspaper appeasing it's advertisers or the commercial interests of its' proprietors in choosing to pursue a particular obsession? Is it hiring reporters that have a reputation for reporting, or does it expect to be taken seriously hiring only those who major in campaigning and editorialising?
  • a full disclosure of what the commercial interests and the personal prejudices of newspaper proprietors are
  • a parliamentary body - with regulatory powers - that can ensure that newspaper proprietors can't exercise undue influence on any particular policy area
  • a commissioner, a tsar, a watchdog AND a standards board to scrutinise the degree to which advice that is given to ministers is given in the public interest, as opposed to the interests of those who give the advice
I'd also like to see full disclosure of the steps that news organisations are taking to ensure that their reporting is of a sufficiently high standard? Are they putting enough resources into reporting to back up their claim to be "the world's greatest newspaper" (taking an example at random)?

Have they taken steps to ensure that their reporters actually understand what they are writing about? Do they have any strategy that will deliver continuous improvement? Are they investing in reporting or just commentary? And if so, how is that adding to the quality of scrutiny?

And are they doing anything more than giving themselves minor slaps on the wrist and paying pitiful fines after they've spend six months lying in a highly damaging way in order to ratchet up their sales by millions?

Because, if politicians are being asked to conduct themselves in a more transparent way, what does that mean? To whom are they being more transparent? In doing so, are their constituents likely to have a clearer view of how they reach their decisions as a result?

At the moment, I suspect that greater transparency will simply play into the hands of the unelected and the unscrupulous. And that, I would suggest, is not a good thing. I'm all for open governance, which is why I'd like it to be symmetrical. That way, it will result in better policy-making, instead of a decline in representative government.

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