Thursday, 23 December 2010

The two Cablegates

What is the connection between Cablegate and Cablegate - between the WikiLeaks release of hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic dispatches and the Telegraph's exposure of various Lib Dem ministers' uncomplimentary remarks about Tory colleagues (or, in Vince's case, Rupert Murdoch)? Superficially, not much. One was diffuse, almost unlimited, in extent, the other concentrated on a single phenomenon, the painful compromises inherent in Coalition government. One was an old-fashioned journalistic scoop, an undercover sting operation, while the other was dramatic evidence of how new technology has fatally undermined traditional notions of state confidentiality. But the stories have more in common that you might think.

Apart from the specific issue of NewsCorp's consolidation of its ownership of Sky, which caused near-fatal damage to Vince Cable's political career (damage that will I fear be compounded by his forthcoming appearance of Strictly Come Dancing, a show that the out-of-office Mandelson rightly considered to be beneath his dignity) the revelations in the Telegraph have not been particularly remarkable. They show Lib Dem ministers anxious to reassure their constituents - or rather undercover reporters posing as disgruntled constituents - that they have qualms joining in what they would like to present as a Tory cutfest. Their remarks were not private - they were made, after all, to ostensible members of the public - but were intended for individual consumption.

Politicians need to be able to send out contradictory signals, to be on message so far as the national media is concerned while still winking or dog-whistling at their own supporters. I've no doubt that Conservative ministers are (or were) equally blasé about sharing their frustration - or apparent frustration - with being held back by those soggy pinko Liberals. Many backbench MPs, after all, are happy to do so. It's part of the essential psychology of Coalition politics. Those involved want it to be known - want to believe - that this government is an arrangement rather than a symbiosis, that like oil and water the two parties may be in the same glass but do not mix. That theirs is a Nestorian rather than a monophysite union (or indeed a Chalcedonian fudge). The only question I would raise in relation to the reporting of this story is the lazy assumption that, when speaking unguardedly to "constituents", the ministers were revealing their true feelings. They were talking to voters.

It's the method rather than the discovery that is really striking in this story. The Telegraph's victims told its reporters the sort of things they might have said, strictly off the record, to trusted political correspondents. ("Don't quote me on this, but doesn't Osborne make you want to vomit?") Hitherto, the game has been paid according to religiously observed conventions, which is why there is grumbling that the sting amounted to a breach of normal journalistic standards. For public consumption, there must be a façade - shaky as may be - of ministers all singing from the same hymn-sheet (as the cliché invariably goes). Politicians and journalists may speak freely to each other, mais pas devant les enfants. But of course it is not not merely with political correspondents that MPs and ministers sometimes drop their guard. Like swearing, which used to be heard everywhere except TV, the pretence is somehow maintained that the public accept political coverage at face value. Any honest comment made on air becomes an embarrassing gaffe because the voters would be shocked - shocked - to discover that politicians do not always agree where they are meant to agree or (at least as often) disagree where they are supposed to be at each others' throats.

By treating elected representatives like shady businessmen or match-fixers who deserve the hidden-microphone treatment, by abusing (and perhaps undermining) the institution of the MP's surgery, by sending young female reporters to flirt outrageously with susceptible middle-aged men, the Telegraph has conspicuously flouted the rules. Who knows where it will end? As Nick Robinson observes,

Starting from today, politicians will be more wary about what they say to their own constituents, more suspicious of journalists and more keen to meet behind closed doors without the risk of microphones, cameras, prying eyes and straining ears. Candour will be less common, not more.

For one thing, if this sort of practice becomes common it will imperil the traditional reporting of politics. For (Robinson again) "political correspondents thrive on hearing, analysing and reporting on the gap between private and public statements." In other words, they depend on gossip (and especially on their near monopoly thereof). But then it might be that the traditional reporting of politics has had its day, reliant as it was on cosiness, on the cultivation of personal relationships - a certain conspiracy between journalists and politicians, indeed - and on the preservation of unsustainable fictions. (A personal favourite is the use of the word "private" to mean "public", as in the Robinson standard "Ministers are saying privately tonight...") The political correspondents were a privileged caste of gatekeepers, necessary in the era of limited information for keeping the public informed but now little more than unusually respectable gossip columnists. The secrets they held and occasionally divulged, the rearrangement of ministerial deckchairs, the narcissism of small differences between identikit politicians, none of it really matters. Not any more.

The paradox of WikiLeaks was that this quintessentially new media story - centred on a buccaneering website and the anarchic personality of its founder Julian Assange - was utterly dependent, for its impact, on the old-fashioned journalistic digging at the New York Times, the Guardian and the other old media "partners". The raw data dumped on the Net would have sat there largely ignored had it not been for the collaboration of the mainstream press. (It is strange indeed that American fury, in all its baroque "Fry him!" excess, should have been concentrated on Assange rather than the Gray Lady; perhaps there is something synthetic about it.) It points toward one way in which the old media may adapt to the advent of the new. The Telegraph's sting operation is equally paradoxical, not least in the way that the big scoop, Cable's views on Murdoch, proved so inconvenient to the newspaper that they attempted to suppress it. And failed. Yet no less than WikiLeaks this was basically a story of old media adapting the methods, or at least the psychological assumptions, of the new.

In the new environment, traditional journalism will have to ditch the old way of doing business - for example, by treating politicians with the disdain and lack of deference associated with a Guido Fawkes or even an Old Holborn. This isn't mere cynicism of the type Andrew Marr associates with bloggers. It's survival. In their different ways, the two Cablegates show what happens when information breaks free from the constraints that technology and ethics, or just habit, has previously always placed on it. I don't know whether it is good or bad (a bit of both, I suspect). But it is inevitable.