22 Dec 2010

Vince Cable: the latest secret that could not stay secret?

After secret recordings reveal government ministers are privately “uneasy” about some policies, Gaby Hinsliff asks where does freedom of information end, and too much information begin?

Vince Cable secretly recorded. (Getty)

This was the year of the secret that could not stay secret. From Gordon Brown’s forgotten microphone in Rochdale to WikiLeaks, from the “lobbygate” exposé of ex-ministers touting for jobs to Vince Cable’s boasts about collapsing the government, 2010 was all about blowing the gaff. The parameters of privacy appear to be shifting for good.

This week’s undercover sting of Liberal Democrats is fascinating for the clear crossover of two big 2010 trends: a new journalistic fearlessness popularised on blogs but now spreading mainstream (a decade ago, would editors have condoned entrapping MPs in their surgeries?) and a blurring of the line between the political and the personal.

For this was also the year of over-sharing, from an exasperated William Hague revealing wife Ffion’s miscarriages (to quash rumours about their relationship) to Tony Blair’s descriptions of his “animal” need for Cherie. Every ambitious politician must now spill forth intimate personal experiences to dramatise their politics: then we judge them fakes if life and ideology do not seem to match.

Does that explain why Cable – whose ballroom-dancing back story is, unlike Michael Moore’s or Steve Webb’s, carefully established – particularly let rip to two strangers? He is hardly the first minister (in any administration) privately uncomfortable with something he must publicly defend. But the relentless tone of self-justification – all “I’ve been involved in a big battle” over immigration, “I am arguing with Nick Clegg” about the banks, how “I can walk out” – suggests a desperation to square the circle between that public persona (kindly liberal egghead) and his harsh political avatar (tuition fee raiser).

Collective responsibility founders when the self trumps the whole, and our highly personalised politics encourages a cult of self.

The obvious question of 2010 was where does freedom of information end, and too much information begin. Did we learn much from Cable (or Julian Assange, or Lord Mandelson’s autobiography, or the outing of David Laws over expenses claims) that we hadn’t already guessed? Was it enough to justify breaching the assumed confidentiality of MPs’ relationships with constituents, and risking less frank exchanges in future?

But the bigger question is why we unearthed mountains of gossip but missed big buried truths – the scale of the cuts that would follow the election, precisely how many ministers thought Brown unelectable, what Andrew Lansley’s technical-sounding asides about NHS reform actually meant. Amid the noisy cacophony of a multi-platform media, is mainstream journalism losing sight of which secrets matter?