My battles for answers over Mephedrone
The Home Office has it down to a fine art, but many other ministries are up to it too. If you have ever wondered how, in the thick of controversy, a Minister manages to appear to have stepped out of the fray to issue a cool word or two without apparently being pressed upon the immediate controversy – yesterday was a case in point.
In yesterday’s case the issue was the banning of Mephedrone and its classification as a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act. For weeks, if not months, a decision has been awaited on the drug. But for even longer the Advisory Panel that gives the Home secretary advice on what drugs to proscribe and at what level to classify them, has itself been falling apart. That all came to a head in the autumn with the sacking, by Alan Johnson, the present Home Secretary, of Professor David Nutt, who headed the unpaid drugs panel. That had triggered other resignations – including that of Nutt’s Deputy, Dr Les King.
Nutt, King, and others alleged political interference in the way in which the panel’s work was both executed and received by Ministers. Then on Sunday the panel’s essential and long serving veterinary surgeon Dr Polly Taylor resigned. This after the government tried to redraft the terms of engagement for its unpaid scientific advisors.
In other words a shambles prevailed at the very moment when public concern about 25 Mephedrone linked deaths was at its height. So does the Home Office want a minister out and about responding to the shambles? Or does the Home Office want a minister out, cleanly announcing a mephedrone ban. Naturally the latter.
I happen to work on a programme that allows politicians and others the space to articulate and be questioned about policy beyond the ‘24 hour news sound bite’. So we do as we always do, request an interview with the Home Secretary. After a lot of toing and froing we are told that Mr Johnson will ‘make himself available for two questions’. That means he will appear to have come casually into the public arena for what we call a ‘doorstep’.
Where a minister steps out of his office – in this case into the noisy atrium of the ‘Home Office’ and appears casually to answer a question or two. The deal was, as is often the case – one questioner per broadcast organisation and then two questions per person. These persons, almost inevitably will be the informal or formal ‘lobby’ of correspondents who cover the Home Office or whatever Ministry is in question. What of course that means is that any ‘bad behaviour’ – whereby a journalist who covers that ministry breaks the deal and starts asking more than two questions about other issues in play – stands the risk of losing the access he or she depends on to do his or her work. So they behave.
The Press Office at the Home Office yesterday refused our request for a ‘sit down’ interview with Mr Johnson but said that instead he would be ‘doing clips’ and ITN (covering both ITV and C4) and the BBC, which covers all its outlets, would each be allowed a reporter. Determined to obtain some kind of interview with the Home Secretary – on a day when he faced yet another resignation, and was responding to the mephedrone crisis, we told the Home Office that I would be the reporter representing ITN. Amid mumblings of ‘is it protocol for him to do that’; and from the Press Office ‘well he’ll only get two questions’, I cycled down to the Home Office.
Three or four seemingly Press Office types were herding the regular home affairs reporters into a bunch at the top of the stairs to the Home Office canteen – perhaps five or six other functionaries and officials mooned around the rim of the gathering – one or two telling us at 4.51pm that ‘the Home Secretary only has until 5.00pm he’s in a hurry for another meeting’.
This was to be announcement the Home Office had prepared for some weeks, and a controversy that had raged for months. Mr Johnson arrives, cool as cucumber… A member of his panel says a bit, then he himself says a bit and casually suggests questions. But I suggest to him that we won’t do questions en masse because that will sap time from our ‘two questions only’ one to one. So he moves to work round the four or five journalists allocated an opportunity to put two questions to him.
Of course we all need question one to deal with the drug announcement. Question two needs to deal with its consequences. Hey presto – no question three, so no time to press him on Polly Taylor’s resignation. Except that I use my second question to tell him his panel is a shambles, he’s suffered six resignations, his Drugs Act is unfit for purpose, he’s had weeks to prepare for all this and he’s allowing us nine minutes and two questions only to deal with a major crisis. Well that forces his hand and as his Press Office keeps telling me stop, and stage whispers ‘only two question..I said, only two questions’, the Home Secretary starts to defend himself and I get six questions.
But this is no way to run a chip shop! I write at length about it because this is how politicians of all stripes try to convince the public that they are open and transparent and available to respond to the issues of the day. We live in the age of the ‘curse of the sound bite’ and too many of us are not being upfront with the public about our role in allowing politicians to do so.
To the surprise of my home affairs colleagues yesterday I said we should all agree not to participate in events like yesterday’s – by all means let a Minister make a statement in the plush ministerial studio designed for that purpose. But to allow a public appearance that makes it look as if he was available and never asked about the disintegration of his panel of advisors, is less than the whole truth.