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.
Why? In a word, it’s too risky.
This will be the first election with really active social media. Last time around, Whitehall Webby (2007) was still a glint in the virtual eye, along with Facebook (2006) and Twitter (2007). Even Guido had been going less than a year (Sept 2004) only just outdone by Tom Watson – one of Parliament’s earliest blogging MPs (2003).
Now, things are different. The political blogosphere is enormous, connected and credible. Mainstream media figures blog and tweet alongside their primary channels, and use those new sources for stories and feedback. And like millions of others, including hundreds if not thousands of British civil servants and a number of old university friends now running for Parliament, I’m blogging and blathering in a variety of other social media.
Mainstream journalists covering my Department’s issues, politicians of all parties and party workers are amongst the 1,200 people who follow me on Twitter (along with a sprinkling of some exotic young ladies from Las Vegas who seem really keen to meet me). And I simply don’t know who’s reading this, which is generally where much of the fun comes in.
But elections (and, I’ve learned, reshuffles) are different: the rules on civil service behaviour are stricter, the scrutiny is much more intense, and the knives are sharper. Frankly, in a climate of pressure on civil service headcount, it would be unwise to stray too far from the pinstriped fold during this particular period at least.
It’s likely the Cabinet Office will be issuing updated guidance this year to help people in my position to stay on the right side of the rules, so watch that space. But personally and pragmatically, I’m not sure any rules will be enough to keep individuals truly safe given the nature and norms of media coverage of bloggers and tweeters currently. Pretty much any personal comment on a public service, a media figure or government initiative or public reply to a politician or even a colleague is going to be susceptible to selective reporting out of context or misattribution as an official or professional view. Sad but, I think, true. Safer simply to go mute.
For me, it should be an enjoyable break. I suspect there’ll be plenty of work to do on the other side 🙂