IT’S a paradox of the information age that we live in that the more accessible those in power seem, the less accountable they actually are.
They have become like actors on a stage, projecting a persona and delivering the lines of a script, rather than addressing real issues and subjecting themselves to proper scrutiny.
Now this trend, which seeks to obscure rather than enlighten, has hit a new low with Boris Johnson’s crass and cynical “People’s Prime Minister’s Questions” conducted via Facebook. There he is, live from 10 Downing Street, answering questions posted direct by the public, and responding with slogans. Enlightening? Honest? An exercise in increasing democratic accountability?
No, none of those things. It’s the political equivalent of batsmen in the current Ashes test matches being lobbed gentle full tosses that they can thwack for six every time. This is simply propaganda, no more or less, that seeks to swerve round the probing interviews central to the workings – and honesty – of our democracy.
Empty platitudes in response to soft questions do nothing to advance the debate around Brexit or provide answers about the most pressing issue facing our country. Read the pages of this newspaper, or of any other serious publication, or turn on the mainstream broadcasters and you’ll find those who hold office being held to account and asked awkward questions. And if their answers are evasive, or even dishonest, they’ll be asked follow-up questions until the truth is winkled out, so that the public gets the information it is entitled to.
It’s a rigorous process, but one that is scrupulously fair because at its heart is giving those being questioned the opportunity to put their case. If they are honest and straightforward – honourable, even – there should be little that is daunting about being asked to account for themselves.
But there is nothing honourable about ducking this process, or trying to pretend that a stage-managed public relations exercise carried out on social media is a channel for imparting useful information about policy or the business of Government. What Boris Johnson and his advisers are practising is the dream of every politician desperate to avoid being pinned down – exerting control over the questions being asked.
The Prime Minister has run scared of in-depth interviews ever since the moment he threw his hat in the ring for the Tory leadership. The few he has granted demonstrate how shifty and evasive he can be, as well as a vagueness about the detail behind headline announcements on matters such as police numbers or giving the NHS more money.
These failings can be neatly covered up if the team at Downing Street can control the context in which he creates the illusion of being accessible whilst saying nothing that even approaches accountability. Image is everything in these appearances, carefully crafted by backroom staff. Mr Johnson’s most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, formerly mastermind of the Vote Leave campaign, was canny in his use of social media in the run-up to the EU referendum, and these bogus question-and-answer sessions are similarly crafty.
The problem is that Mr Cummings is neither an elected official, nor accountable to the public despite wielding huge influence on Government policy.
How grubby and disturbing this sense of the country’s direction being set not by MPs but advisers was highlighted by two great Parliamentarians, Michael Heseltine and our own Betty Boothroyd, the Dewsbury girl who rose from working-class roots to become Commons Speaker.
Just over a week ago, they joined forces to condemn the backroom cabal now at the heart of the Government and its seeming contempt for MPs.
Truth, openness and accountability are sacrosanct to Lord Heseltine and Baroness Boothroyd, and they foresee grave consequences for our country if its system of Parliamentary democracy is undermined by shadowy string-pulling by people who do not have to answer to voters.
This is happening across politics. Powerful advisers also surround Jeremy Corbyn, and he, too, avoids proper interviews wherever possible. Instead, carefully-edited snippets of Commons appearances are fed out on to social media to make his leadership appear far more purposeful than it actually is.
One of the most worrying aspects of this new manipulation of image in the two main parties is that it pitches people against Parliament, portrays MPs as a sideshow and their scrutiny of the Government as a meddlesome obstacle to getting things done, particularly on Brexit.
Right in front of our eyes, on social media, the democratic process is being undermined by the very people who should uphold it and that is deeply worrying.