MPs have spent over 2774 hours on Twitter in the past year. Photo: Getty
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“Twittering is for the birds!”: MPs have spent 115 days tweeting in a year

Is the increasing amount of time our MPs spend sending tweets impinging on their more traditional engagement with voters, and each other?

Typing 140 characters or fewer into a smartphone is now one of the most prominent political weapons in the otherwise often rusty and dusty armoury of our MPs and peers. Before, all they had was an echoey rebuttal in an empty debate chamber once in a while, or endless Saturday mornings thrusting ill-designed leaflets into the hands of irritated and mid-breakfast constituents. Now they have an immediate, free, modern way of making contact with the outside world: Twitter.

A lot has been written about how our nimble-fingered (not a phrase they should use to describe themselves) parliamentarians are embracing modern technology to engage with voters; my colleague Lucy Fisher’s recent excellent piece on the ways Westminster uses Twitter is an example.

A report, which came out at the end of last week, by the company Westminster Public Affairs, has found that from 29 July 2013 to 28 July 2014, MPs have spent a combined total of over 115 days (or more than 2,774 hours) sending tweets.

This is a massive increase on the amount of time they spent on Twitter in 2011, which the same company calculated as a total of 1,000 hours. And 350 more MPs are now using Twitter than in the year of the last election, 2010, with 461 MPs (71 per cent) now having Twitter accounts.

The most Twitter-happy MP over the past year has been Respect MP George Galloway, and the top tweeters from the three main parties are the Tories’ Michael Fabricant, Labour’s Karl Turner (with Stella Creasy a close second) and Lib Dem President Tim Farron. What’s clear from these accounts is that the most successful parliamentary tweeters actually bring personality into their online missives, rather than just sounding like a chopped up press release.

However, is the amount of time politicians are spending on the social networking service taking away from their more traditional work as local representatives?

Meg Hillier, Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, who is on the Digital Democracy Commission – a little-known body set up by the Speaker to try and bring some measure of order into parliament’s relationship with technology – is cautious about MPs’ use of Twitter.

“It's important, it has a role,” she tells me, “but actually as Robert Halfon [an MP who also sits on the Commission] would say, it's a social network, not a compulsory public service. And I think you've got to really manage expectations. If people tweet me, in 140 characters you can't get enough information to deal with it as for instance casework or proper, serious... I mean, I've had tweets about heavyweight foreign affairs policy, and in 140 characters you can't get the nuances across or anything!”

She highlights the importance of talking to people face to face, rather than relying on tweeting for all communication: “Dealing with real people, rather than Twitter, [is] quite important. I'm meeting people face to face. That has a place, a very important place... People often knock personal contact – it's perhaps not the most time-efficient, but I think it matters a lot that I see people where they live, I meet people in the street, in their environment and people will tell me things that they won't necessarily write to me, or come and see me about...

“The other thing about Twitter is that not everyone's on Twitter. And my constituents are digitally divided. I may represent Shoreditch, but not everybody is living off their smartphone in Hackney, so I have to bear that in mind.”

Hillier also points out the added pressure that the need to tweet can pile on to a politician. “There are some people who live their lives on Twitter, and do have a constant running dialogue. I have to draw some limits. I'm also receiving emails and texts and phone calls... You’ve got to have a divide between work and time-off sometimes; we don’t get much.”

Colleagues of Hillier’s, such as Creasy and Turner, are examples of MPs who keep up an almost 24/7 conversation online, and on the Tory side, Fabricant is another well-known Twitter personality beyond the confines of a Westminster audience. I remember his comments to me about his use of the site when I interviewed him last summer:

“Twitter has been more effective to me for my colleagues knowing where I come from than actually the last 23 years in the Commons have. I always remember the former chief whip Patrick McLoughlin saying, ‘if you want to keep a secret, speak in the House of Commons’”.

He even revealed that he’d given the Chancellor some tweet-tips: “I was saying to George Osborne that, if tweets are always totally on-message, no one is going to read them. To get your message across, you’ve got to be amusing, and sometimes not be overtly political at all… No campaign should be boring, because you turn off.”

Yet there are still MPs who haven’t signed up to the site, and many remain unconvinced. Sir Roger Gale, Conservative MP for North Thanet, was one of the MPs to table an amendment in 2011 intended to ban the use of Twitter in the House of Commons chamber (which failed). On the subject of rocketing Twitter use among MPs, he tells me:

“I do not tweet myself, abhor the apparent obsession with celebrity, and remain of the view that the chamber and the committees of the House of Commons are places for debate, not instant electronic communication with the ‘communicariat’ and wish that more time was spent upon detailed, serious and attentive consideration of issues and less – or preferably no – time was spent upon instant comment.

“Twittering is for the birds!” he adds.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.