The indiscretion of Vince Cable

Should constituency surgeries always be confidential?

Today the Daily Telegraph publishes further reports of secretly recorded conversations with Liberal Democrat MPs. These follow yesterday's disclosures of Vince Cable's ill-considered comments recorded at his constituency surgery. The revelations are certainly interesting, but are such clandestine tactics in the public interest?

In the case of Vince Cable's remark that he had declared "war on Murdoch", there is arguably a public interest. It is unacceptable for a decision-maker with public law duties (or "quasi-judicial" powers, as old-fashioned lawyers would call them) to say such a thing of any party that could possibly be affected adversely by his or her decision. In my view, the quashing of such a decision would be a mere legal formality.

But the Daily Telegraph did not initially publish that particular remark, and it is not clear that it ever intended to do so. Instead, it was first published by the BBC in a scoop. This reluctance on the part of the Daily Telegraph may be explained by an understandable wish not to help a commercial competitor, though there could be other, less cynical explanations. Moreover, to catch the Business Secretary saying such a thing was not, in fact, the intention of the undercover reporters: it was an unexpected slip. Rather, the intention seems to have been to capture what Liberal Democrats were "really saying" about the coalition.

If so, there are easier ways. For example, the Daily Telegraph's lobby correspondents routinely hear what Liberal Democrat MPs are "really saying" about the coalition. But because these conversations are conducted on lobby terms, any criticisms will not be attributed to the MP in question. In this way, it would appear that the only mistake made by the Lib Dem MPs in this affair is to talk frankly to someone who appeared to be a constituent (whom the MP actually represents), rather than speak directly to a Daily Telegraph lobby correspondent. The exercise carried out by the Telegraph's undercover reporters would not be required if it were not for the conventions of non-attributed lobby briefings, in which the newspaper itself connives.

As a general rule, the constituency surgery of an MP should not be the place to make secret recordings. That said, the confidentiality of constituency surgeries exists to protect the constituent, not the MP (just as legal professional privilege exists to protect the client, and not the lawyer). As such, it is open for any constituent (real or supposed) to disclose what is said by an MP. On this basis, the Daily Telegraph's secret recordings do not so far breach any grand political or legal principle.

However, there is some cause for concern. One suspects that the first use of interceptions of voicemails by tabloid reporters had a solid public-interest basis; but it was quickly realised that such material was a rich seam, to be mined just for trivial stories. Similarly, one hopes that newspapers do not now see constituency surgeries as "fair game". The secret recording of constituents would never be appropriate: there will always be the need for a private space where a constituent can speak candidly to his or her member of parliament.

David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for blogging in 2010.

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 non-recent 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 only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

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.