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.