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.)

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.