Staying silent in Babel

Steph Gray has raised the interesting question of what should happen to public sector social media activity during the election campaign which will be upon us in the next couple of months:

When the General Election is called, and government enters the pre-election phase known as purdah, I’m going to suspend my personal blogging and tweeting at least until the results are announced.

Simon Wakeman has reflected on the same issues from a local government perspective and although he hasn’t yet made up his mind, it sounds as though he too is inclining to hanging up his keyboard for the duration.  Now Dan Wood has joined the debate, again coming down on the side of safety first reticence, though with a strong sense that this is sensible pragmatism rather than necessary principle:

Secondly, the need for public servants (certainly those at any level of seniority or experience) to be unbiased and to serve the administration of the day exists all year round. Purdah should be no different. And I’ve not seen any blogs from public servants that stray over that line…

So no problem there then – everyone carry on as you were! But Simon and Steph point out that purdah is a particularly sensitive time, and as we gear up for our first election with an established social media, no-one quite knows what the rules are.

So where does all that leave us?  One simple approach is to start with the official guidance.  The rules for the general election this year have not yet been published – and on past form will not appear until the election is called.  But the guidance for the 2005 election is still on the Cabinet Office website (pdf document, web page).  The main elements of the guidance – and certainly the principles behind it – have remained pretty stable for the last several elections at least, so it’s probably a reasonably good guide to how things will be this time.  The main bit which is relevant in this context is the section on communications, which begins:

The general principle governing communication activities during a General Election is to do everything possible to avoid competition with Parliamentary candidates for the attention of the public. In addition, it has always been recognised that special care must be taken during the course of an Election since material produced with complete impartiality which would be accepted as objective in ordinary times, may excite criticism during an Election period when feelings are running high.

Those two sentences are each worth reflecting on.  The first has a silent assumption, that communication capacity is a scarce resource, and that the more of that capacity which is taken by government, the less is available for candidates to get their messages across to electors. Of course it remains true that attention is a scarce resource, but it isn’t true in the way that it was even in 2005, let alone earlier elections, that column inches are scarce. I can write here at any length I choose to, but it is a pretty safe bet that I won’t as a result impede the ability of parliamentary candidates to get the attention of the public. The second sentence more directly echoes the concern expressed by Steph, that the very fact of there being an election puts what would otherwise be unexceptionable at risk of criticism.  Civil servants should, it appears, be impeccably impartial at all times, but even more so when an election is imminent.

My own opinion is that the first of the two sentences will have more bearing than the second – which is not, of course, to say that civil servants can blog without risk of criticism. But I don’t overall think that bloggers such as Steph should have too much to worry about if they stick to their normal normal subject matter and professional standards. ‘Official’ blogs, such as those produced by FCO and DFID are another matter: as part of formal government communications activity, they will have to stop.

That’s my interpretation anyway. But even I am not untouched by the febrile environment, so I feel oddly compelled to underline the point that I have no authority or special expertise on any of this, and nobody should base any decisions just on what I say.  And even if anyone were inclined to take any notice of what I say here, it is the guidance for this election, not the last one, which will matter in the end.