Political bloggers are becoming more significant in the United Kingdom, breaking the code of silence that surrounds the Westminster village. This week John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, rounded on those who had posted items about two affairs in addition to the dalliance with his diary secretary which ended with him losing his department.
Yesterday, on Radio 4’s Today programme he he huffed and puffed and dissembled as he failed eight time to answer direct questions about whether he had other affairs. We took that as a “Yes”. Yet what the bloggers are saying is nothing that has not been common gossip around the Palace of Westminster and the dinner tables of Notting Hill and Islington for several months.
There has long been a attitude of omerta among politicians, journalists and functionaries in the know. Some things, it says, are better kept from the people. It happens in every country. For journalists it is an age-old question: “When does something of interest to the public becomes a matter in the public interest?”
Are the sexual proclivities of our leaders of any significance when considering how well they do the job they were elected to do? Almost certainly not. History reveals that some of our most revered leaders had habits which were then hidden behind the hedge of silence. Today they would be hounded from office by the popular press.
Gossip used to move very slowly out from the centre and no lady would tell her maid what she had heard. The mainstream press maintained silence. The world wide web has changed all that. Gossip now spreads around the world in nanoseconds. Or does it. I suspect that if I walked out onto my village green in Suffolk and offered Â£50 to the first person to name Prescott’s mistresses, I would come home in a hour with the money in my pocket.
Yet clearly the political establishment is rattled by bloggers, even if the news has not been carried as widely as they suspect. They fear the unknown reaches of cyberspace.
If Prescott had simply said in that radio interview, “Mind your own business. I am not going to answer that question,” he might have been surprised by a reasonably sympathetic response. As it is, he looked shifty and that is not good for a politician.
The question of whether the Government, desperate to find someone to take on the white elephant of the Millennium Dome, has been giving favourable treatment to Philip Anschutz’s super-casino bid is “in the public interest”. But whether Prescott had two more affairs than have already been admitted is only interesting to the public.
At the same time it the environment is which journalists and politicians co-exist is being changed by blogging and that is making decisions on what should or should not be published harder.