Receive our Behind the Headlines email and we’ll post a free copy of Byline Times
Last week, I wrote about myself and other experts being blacklisted from speaking to government groups.
At the time I was uninvited from the international Chemical Weapons Demilitarisation Conference, the correspondence I received referenced a hitherto unpublished policy.
On 11 May, Jeremy Quin, Cabinet Office Minister and Paymaster General, responded to questions by several MPs about social media vetting of members of the public.
He had this to say: “The Cabinet Office has drawn up guidance to help protect civil service values. Taxpayers’ money should not unwittingly be used to pay for speakers linked to abhorrent organisations or individuals who promote hate or discriminatory beliefs, which could bring the civil service into disrepute.
“We do not hold a central record of speakers identified as unsuitable, but as the guidance has been described to me as ‘codified common sense’, I trust that the number will be very few.”
When pressed for the actual guidance, he said: “I have nothing to hide. If the hon. gentleman would like it published, I will publish it. It is internal guidance, and it therefore tends to be internal, but I will lay a copy in the library… there are certain abhorrent organisations that we should not pay or give a platform to and cause embarrassment to our civil service or our country. But I will publish the guidance.”
Eventually, and not without some chasing by Liberal Democrat MP Richard Foord, the guidance document described to be “codified common sense” was indeed given to Parliament’s library. It is now also available online. I encourage people to read it in full, as it raises a number of concerns and questions.
While I am an expert on other things – even to my untrained eye – this unsigned and undated policy raises numerous problems. It is both banal and sinister at the same time.
My own catalogue of issues with this document will no doubt be added to by others.
Nobody told me or anyone else to stop criticising the Government. This policy was enacted with little fanfare. Without intervention in Parliament leading to its publication, or the unfortunate email I was sent confirming the existence of the policy, how was I or anyone else to know of its existence? Expecting people to abide by secret policies is bad in a democracy.
This policy is retrospective. It commits government officials to screening social media of external speakers for a period of five years. It is not clear whether this is five years from the time of search or five years from the policy, which is itself undated. Retrospective regulations are troublesome at the best of time. Something that was allowable in 2019 is now retrospectively punishable. That seems very unjust, and even more unjust when done in secret.
This policy appears to apply to “cross government diversity networks” – groups to ensure that voices across government get heard such as ‘Christians in Government’ and ‘Army Parents Network’. I was uninvited by the Ministry of Defence. A list of MoD diversity networks is here.
What I cannot figure out is what these diversity networks have to do with the international Chemical Weapons Demilitarisation Conference from which I was barred. It bears no relation to any of the “diversity networks” organisations. It seems to me that a policy applicable to a narrow band of activity has been applied more widely than its express remit.
DSTL, an arms-length research and development body of the MoD should not be construed as being covered by this policy. Is this really the policy that was used to bar me from speaking? Or is it just one of several?
Basis in Law
What law authorises Government to do this? Nobody voted for the Cabinet Office or other departments to screen the social media of private individuals.
Vagueness and inconsistency
Nothing in this document actually lays out a definition of what content might be objectionable. It pushes the screening of speakers down to individual event organisers, who may very well have different interpretations.
Limits and Overreach
This document says much about impartiality, but it tries to extend the civil service’s impartiality onto the general public. There is no legal basis for that. It is overreach of government authority to demand that private citizens behave as impartially as civil servants.
Waste of Public Funds
The policy seems to recommend looking at five years of articles, media and social media output. In my case, that’s easily tens of thousands of tweets, many hours of podcast material, two books, and numerous articles. It would take a diligent person many days to screen through my output. What about an academic with hundreds of publications to their credit?
Is this vetting a wise use of public funds? I personally believe I was subject to a more cursory look, but every bureaucracy has literalists. How much time and money is tied up on this effort?
Data Protection Laws
Collecting data on my political views would be defined as “special category data” under the Data Protection legislation. Have the MoD and DSTL (the agencies involved in my own situation) done an impact assessment on this? Where is my consent for processing of my personal data in this way?
There are, no doubt, other data protection issues at play here as well. The Government’s policy contains this statement: “After you have conducted your research, what are your conclusions? You only need to record your decision and be mindful when storing information that it needs to be compliant with GDPR.”
How does one conduct such research without at least temporarily storing personal data? I feel a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office coming on.
The policy directs officials to inspect private citizens’ anonymous and pseudonymous accounts. This could be construed as implying that they have the capability to unmask accounts. How can they prove an account belongs to someone?
I am easily found under my own name. But what if I was named James Smith? And what about the fake accounts that pop up in my name impersonating me? In this day and age of slipshod verification, what is the safeguard that a civil servant is actually looking at the right accounts?
This all sounds a bit like surveillance. Does social media vetting for the purposes of deducing my political views constitute surveillance under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000?
We are still covered by the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. We all have rights on freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression.
By exercising retrospective sanction over the free expression of private citizens, does this policy violate the Convention and the Act?
By seeking to inspire some degree of self-censorship among anyone who, in the next five years, may want to speak to a government-funded meeting, this is certainly an abridgement of free speech rights. There may also be considerations under the Equality Act 2010.
Depriving the Government of Expertise
This document is clear evidence that there really is a war on expertise. The matrix on page eight of the document leads to an easy conclusion that it is really just best to not have any speakers at events.
Not only that, given a five-year window of social media output and an arbitrary and variable threshold of what might be considered objectionable, almost every expert in the country could be excluded. The war on experts is real.
Civil Service Code
Civil servants have the Civil Service Code. It states: “You must not: act in a way that unjustifiably favours or discriminates against particular individuals or interests.” By engaging in the vetting in the policy, are civil servants being manoeuvred into breaking their code?
Diversity and Impartiality as the Enemy
Finally, this policy has been promoted as trying to promote diversity and protect impartiality. It does the opposite.
For all the rhetoric of impartiality early on in the document, the document literally contains the phrase “avoid any risk of impartiality” on page eight. Lord forbid should the likes of me interfere with the Government’s partiality.
All of these factors disturb me. They should disturb all of us. I am sure others will find more problems with this policy. Let me know if you do by contacting Byline Times.