Three years ago, Owen Barder was the subject of an attack by the Daily Mail for his blog. It caught my attention partly because I knew Owen slightly and admired what I knew and partly because as a then much more tentative public sector blogger it was a reminder of just how unclear boundaries and expectations could be. I don’t remember how I found out about it, though I don’t think it was until some time afterwards and I do remember the vigorous defence mounted by Tim Worstall. There was some other blog commentary, but the reverberations quickly died away – except no doubt for Owen himself. Megaphone journalism remained ascendant.
Today, Sarah Baskerville is the subject of an attack by the Daily Mail for her twitter account. It caught my attention because Paul Clarke wrote an excoriating rebuttal on his blog. What is different is not just the more rapid appearance of a strong defence, but the speed and power of reverberation. On twitter, by 10pm the #welovebaskers hashtag had been used in 659 tweets by 341 people. On the web, almost 7,500 people have clicked on bit.ly short links to Paul’s post. Understandably, Sarah has now locked her own twitter account, but she can be in little doubt about the outpouring of support. Megaphone journalism hasn’t gone away, but it can be challenged and contradicted in a way which wasn’t possible even three years ago. That’s apparent even in the Mail itself: the story about Owen attracted a total of two comments. The story on Sarah so far has 59, overwhelmingly critical. Those few which are not have been strongly marked down by other readers.
But although the megaphone may no longer have a monopoly, it can still make a lot of noise. Thousands of people have seen the defence of Sarah, but the circulation of the Daily Mail last month was 2.1 million.
Even with those numbers, the shift is unmistakable. It is worth noting where some of the support for Sarah is coming from. Alex Butler wrote in a comment on Paul’s blog post:
As you know i had more than a hand in drafting the guidance for civil servants and their use of social media. In the past few years I’m pleased to say that we’ve opened up to real and honest debate. Whether or not you agree with Sarah B she is one of those windows into our world.
And Bill McCluggage was one of the hundreds who tweeted support. It’s unfair in a way to single them out, but they are both emblematic of a sea change in government approaches to social media and the use of IT more generally.
The most negatively rated comment on the Mail site is rather pathetically condescending:
One imagines that poor Sarah is looking forward to a ‘quiet chat’ with the Boss on Monday morning!
Not long ago, though, that would have been a reasonable guess. My hope now is that any such chat will be to express the support Sarah deserves. My confident expectation is that even if it were not, there are many within government who would be happy to explain to her boss why support is the right reaction, should that be necessary. That may be the most important change of all, even if it is of little comfort to Sarah today.
An excellent post to complement Paul Clarke’s supremely “excoriating” but controlled post earlier today.
Nice write up Stef.
I’ve witnessed (and experienced) an overtly negative focus on civil servant social media activity recently. This latest chapter with Baskers is very depressing, although the response has been deeply encouraging.
Watching colleagues locking their accounts or changing their account names this past month has been difficult. There is a sense that the curtain is falling on openness and free discussion.
Transparency it seems must be centrally managed, subject to multiple and protracted sign-off and never ever extended to individual civil servants working in departments.
Some news this week makes me wonder how many digital experts will be left in departments this time next year. Those who do remain may well exist in a quite different atmosphere.
This case has great similarities with Civil Serf in DWP case who I represented for PCS. That led to changes to Cabinet Office guidance on blogging etc.
But there’s still a very grey area for civil servants. In the current climate, caution is sadly the best advice until restrictions are loosened.
Another great post about this unfair attack on Sarah. Glad you mentioned Alex Butler’s comment, as many people will think that people who comment on the articles don’t fully understand what civil servants can and cannot do. If someone who actually contributed to writing the rules defends her, that adds to the credibility.
Based on my own experiences in central government this month LG has it right. Transparency and openness no longer seem to mean empowering capable and passionate civil servants to engage with the public they serve. It means creating new bureaucratic processes and ‘guidance’ to centrally control civil servant activities as much as is possible. Sad, and a seriously wasted opportunity.
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