Guest post by Rupert Matthews
One of the less remarked upon results of the recent NoW phone hacking fandango came from David Cameron during the debate in the House of Commons. Our leftie media friends barely mentioned it in their eagerness to do down the Murdochs, but it has the potential to have far-reaching and not altogether beneficial results.
David Cameron said this during the debate. “As we discussed a few moments ago, if we are calling for greater transparency from the police, I think it is only right that we provide it in Government, too… So I will be consulting the Cabinet Secretary on an amendment to the ministerial code to require Ministers to record all meetings with newspaper and other media proprietors, senior editors and executives, regardless of the nature of the meeting. Permanent secretaries and special advisers will also be required to record such meetings. This information should be published quarterly.”
In answer to a question Mr Cameron indicated that there was a need to publish the links between the journalists and politicians more generally.
Let us look at the first, more restricted proposal first. This means that all ministers (not just cabinet ministers) will have to record all conversations they have with senior media people. So will ministerial aides. Don’t be fooled by the use of the word “meeting“, the follow up “regardless of the nature” means that this included not only formal meetings, but quick phone chats, bumping into each other at parties and any other personal contact. The information may be published quarterly, but no doubt the Prime Minister will have access to it more often than that. Interestingly, when Mr Cameron voluntarily released details of some of his recent meetings he included those with blog writers.
My first thought was how odd the proposal was. What have chats over a glass of wine between a minister and a newspaper editor got to do with phone hacking at the News of the World. Well, nothing obviously. So why is this measure being introduced and why the big rush? After all this measure is not being left until the Inquiry reports, it is being pushed ahead now.
Clearly the plan has attractions for Mr Cameron. It is not difficult to see what these might be.
A major problem faced by all prime ministers, and by party leaders in opposition, is that of leaks from senior colleagues. This government has been no different. We have learned via journalists of tensions around the cabinet table, of how individual ministers have lobbied for or against individual measures and of the private views of assorted senior government figures. No doubt the majority of these stories have come from the minister in question, or an aide, slipped to a journo over a quick sniffter in some quiet bar around Westminster. A meeting that was known of only by those attending.
Well, not any more.
Let us imagine that Minister A argues strongly against some measure, but is outvoted at Cabinet. Two days later a story appears in Newspaper B about Minister A’s views in which the journalist praises the minister for his courage in defending some service against heartless cuts imposed by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister then inspects the list of who met who when and finds that the only minister to meet the journalist in question was Minister A. Retribution would be swift, sudden and firm.
Or if Minister A does not record his meeting, why then he is in breach of the Ministerial Code. If he were to be found out, retribution would not be so much firm as final.
The Prime Minister would seem to have used an unrelated crisis to slip through a very handy centralisation of power into his own hands.
Now, you may or may not think that these sorts of “leaks” or “off the record briefings” are a good thing. But undoubtedly the proposed change to the ministerial code will stop them, or at least make them very much more difficult.
Looking now at the rather wider range of the proposal at which Mr Cameron seemed to be hinting – though to be fair no concrete proposal has yet emerged – we seem to be heading toward a Members Register of Media Meetings. If all MPs and journalists are included (as would appear to be the case) then this would be a most useful tool for the Whips of all Parliamentary parties. Discipline would be enforced, free thinking curtailed and free speech ended.
Should we be worried? I think so.