Nadine Dorries and her blog

Is Nadine Dorries MP using social media to both mislead and attack constituents?

Once upon a time, what happened in social media stayed in the social media.

What was said on blogs and on Twitter was inconsequential. It didn't really matter; nobody would notice, nobody would care in the real world.

However, the astonishing abuse of her blog by an elected member of parliament is challenging such complacent assumptions. For there are now grave questions to be raised as to the weird and worrying conduct of Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire.

First, a confession. I used to admire Dorries's blogging in her early days (see my comment here). Accordingly, what I have now to report cannot be dismissed as the smears of some long-time opponent. Instead, it is tinged with the sadness one has when witnessing any decline and fall.

Let us start with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Dorries has recently been cleared of misusing her accommodation allowance. However, it is what came out in the course of the investigation that is interesting about her use of social media.

In paragraph 81 of his report, the commissioner records Dorries as telling him:

My blog is 70 per cent fiction and 30 per cent fact. It is written as a tool to enable my constituents to know me better and to reassure them of my commitment to Mid Bedfordshire. I rely heavily on poetic licence and frequently replace one place name/event/fact with another.

This is a remarkable, discrediting admission. But it was an admission she had to make, in a way, as the commissioner had rightly spotted that what she said on her blog in no way tallied with her claims for accommodation allowances.

So we need not be surprised when the commissioner states in paragraph 157 of his report:

Some material on Ms Dorries' weblog appears to suggest a pattern of use of her constituency property in some respects at variance with the evidence she has given, in that it implies she has a more permanent presence in the constituency. Ms Dorries' evidence is that she gave prominence on the blog to her use of her constituency property both to comfort her constituency association and to demonstrate to her constituents the degree of her personal commitment to her Mid Bedfordshire constituency. Her evidence as to the reliance to be placed on material on her blog is that it is in fact 70 per cent fiction and 30 per cent fact, and relies heavily on poetic licence. She frequently replaces place-names, events and facts with others.

This is clearly rather serious. The inference is that either her blog or her evidence to the commissioner is deliberately incorrect and misleading.

So what view did the commissioner take, when faced with this evidence? Which of Dorries's contradictory versions is truthful and correct? In his formal conclusions, at paragraph 167, the commissioner states:

Ms Dorries' evidence to me was also inconsistent with statements she had previously made on her weblog and in the press, where she seemed to go out of her way to emphasise that she lived in the constituency. I needed to resolve the apparent conflict between what she was telling me and what she had put on her weblog and had told the press. I accept her explanation that the weblog was not accurate but was intended to give her constituents the impression that she was living in the constituency. I therefore consider that Ms Dorries' evidence to me, reinforced by much of the other evidence I have received, is to be preferred over the impression given in her weblog references. But I note that the result of these references is that the weblog gave information to its readers, including Ms Dorries' constituents and party supporters, which provided a misleading impression of her arrangements as the Member of Parliament for the constituency.

Just how close is this a direct accusation of dishonesty by the commissioner against Dorries? Is he actually calling her a liar?

Well, on the one hand, he accepts that what she was telling him directly was truthful and correct. But if this is the case, then the accusation must be that Ms Dorries is knowingly misleading her constituents on her blog. If so, it is difficult not to see such an accusation as a straight allegation of dishonest conduct. And, if so, it would be of the greatest significance: regardless of the medium, it is a serious matter to say of any member of parliament that he or she is deliberately misleading his or her constituents.

So what did the Commons standards and privileges committee make of the commissioner's report? In particular, how did members respond to the suggestion that their fellow MP was knowingly misleading her constituents?

Their response was at paragraph 24 of the standards and privileges committee's report:

Ms Dorries does not agree with the comments made by the Commissioner about her use of her blog. She states that his description of comments made on the blog as "misleading" is "strongly worded and incorrect". We accept that Ms Dorries used the blog to reassure her constituents of her commitment to them, and also to protect her own privacy. We do not feel, however, that the Commissioner's comment is unfair. There are discrepancies between some of the information that appeared on Ms Dorries' blog and the information she supplied to the Commissioner during the investigation. The Commissioner was quite correct in seeking an explanation of the differences, in order to form a judgement about the complaint. It is right that he sets out in his memorandum his conclusions about which information he could rely on.

In other words, it was not unfair of the commissioner to make such an allegation. The MPs furthermore heard Dorries's protests at the commissioner's serious allegation, but they did not accept them. Other MPs simply did not believe her.

Deliberately misleading constituents is a grave charge.

But there have been other serious allegations about Dorries's use of her blog. A pattern of wayward – almost random – behaviour has been apparent for many months now. It is evocative of the slow breakdown of HAL at the end of 2001.

For example, she recently resorted to a blog post to raise implicit allegations of impropriety against a constituent who had been engaging with her on Twitter; and then, only last week, she made direct allegations of criminal activity against a critical blogger.

In neither case has she so far been able to substantiate any of her express or implicit allegations. And nobody who now follows her blogging realistically expects her to do so.

These are not trivial matters: using any publication to mislead constituents and to make unsubstantiated allegations is possibly as serious an abuse of any medium – social or mainstream – as it can get for a politician.

Even partisan Conservatives must regard this as unacceptable and, indeed, off the record many do so. For many, sadly, a once-excellent blogger has become an embarrassment and a disgrace.

David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He blogs on legal and policy matters for the New Statesman. He has recently been appointed a judge for the 2011 Orwell Prize for blogging, for which he was shortlisted this year.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for historical child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

Operation Midland, which was set-up to check claims that boys were abused in the 1970s and 80s by a high-level group of paedophiles including politicians, military figures and members of law enforcement agencies, has had up to 40 detectives assigned to it and a similar investigation. Admittedly some of these were murder and major crimes officers but that’s still a large contingent.

In fact if such squads were formed for every historical case the Metropolitan Police would be overwhelmed as last year alone it received reports from nearly 1100 adults – many of them well past retirement age –that they were sexually assaulted when children.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.