Respected guest speakers are barred from Whitehall because of their ‘problematic’ social media
How about this for the plot of a dystopian novel, in which government blacklists herald a creeping dictatorship. Our hero — let’s call him Richard Hannay — is a world expert on an arcane subject of great interest to anyone dealing with national security. His expertise, garnered over many years in government, spans the scientific, legal, intelligence, regulatory and military aspects of the subject. Hannay has written a bestselling book, and makes a comfortable living consulting and lecturing. In his spare time he relaxes by firing off salvos on social media. He detested Donald Trump and supports Ukraine. He mocks nitwitted American commentators who think that London is a Muslim-run hellhole. He has harsh words for the government too on migration, corruption, Brexit and other issues. He does not choose his words carefully. Why should he? This is a free country, after all.
Or so he thinks. Until he gets an email. It is from the organisers of a conference where he had agreed to speak, waiving his usual fat fee on patriotic grounds. The email reads:
“Rules introduced by the Cabinet Office in 2022 specify that the social media accounts of potential speakers must be vetted . . . to check whether these people have ever criticised government officials or government policy. The vetting process is impartial and purely evidence-based. The check on your social media has identified material that criticises government officials and policy. It is for this reason . . . that I am afraid that we have no choice and must cancel your invitation.”
It is easy to see how the plot might unfold. Our hero has little redress: there is no appeal from this secret blacklisting. He does not know what caused offence, or whether it has been correctly interpreted. He cannot complain publicly: if the blacklisting becomes known, other clients will suspect the real reason was indiscretion or incompetence. Professional ruin beckons. So too do the next steps in the country’s descent into dictatorship.
This is not a political page-turner. This is Britain right now.
“Richard Hannay” is a friend of mine. Our connection goes back more than 30 years. He lives in the central London constituency that I am contesting at the next general election. He is one of the most insightful and admirable people I know.
The rules cited in the email are scandalously vague and flimsy. They were never debated in parliament nor publicly announced. Our knowledge of them stems from an anonymous briefing to the Financial Times last summer, quoting “friends of” the then Cabinet Office minister Jacob Rees-Mogg. The process apparently involves vetting three to five years of posts on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn in search of “potentially problematic or controversial material that may contravene civil service values”. The vetters are “mindful” of “criticism of government officials or policy”, of anything that indicates “a strong political partiality”, or that might bring the civil service into disrepute.
The real source of disrepute is the rules themselves. Their ostensible aim is to stop religious extremists brainwashing civil servants. Even if that goal was reasonable, the way they are being used is not. My friend helps out at a local Anglican church and votes Liberal Democrat. While in government, he held a high-level security clearance.
My gorge rises at this policy, and the soulless finality in which it was communicated. I lived behind the Iron Curtain, in a system where snoopers pounced on disloyalty or defiance. Retribution could include the loss of your job, your home, or your children’s higher education. My friend the late Václav Havel wrote memorably about this in his essay, The Power of the Powerless, describing a greengrocer who obediently displays “Workers of the World Unite” in his window, not because he believes in it but because of the consequences if he does not. By accepting the humiliation of compliance, Havel wrote, “Individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system.”
For that reason I decided I would never, ever, let fear of losing my visa — and thus my job — moderate what I wrote. I was on the verge of expulsion from communist Czechoslovakia when the revolution came.
I cannot mention my friend’s real name or the specific field in which he works (and I have blurred some of the details) because I don’t want to worsen his plight. But as his prospective MP, I have written to the Cabinet Office minister responsible, Jeremy Quin, demanding an explanation. What are the criteria for reviewing social media accounts? What safeguards and scrutiny are involved? What right of appeal do victims have? How widely are these tests applied? The conference at which my friend was supposed to speak, incidentally, was not organised by the Cabinet Office, but by a supposedly arms-length and apolitical public body. I’ve received no answer yet.
In the meantime, I will ask friendly MPs and peers to raise this in parliament. I am drafting a Freedom of Information request to see how many others may have been caught in this dragnet. If the principled arguments about individual liberty, free speech and the importance of public debate do not sway the government, perhaps another, practical one will. Decision-makers who cut themselves off from the best sources of information for political reasons are unlikely to find their work improves. That mistake spelled disaster for the communist bureaucrats of eastern Europe. It may do the same for their modern heirs in Whitehall.