Are you living under the illusion that the Freedom of Information Act allows everybody free access to information? If you are, then you’re mistaken. Certain information is still difficult, or expensive, to come by. Try getting hold of the accounts of public bodies, court documents, details of land ownership and you’ll be tap dancing in treacle – and there are many more examples.
Think back to the battle Heather Brooke had to get information about MPs expenses under the Freedom of Information Act. It took her nearly five years to win her case. During that time MPs tried to make retrospective changes to the Freedom of Information Act to prevent her obtaining the information. Says quite a lot about our politicians and our political system, doesn’t it? If it hadn’t been for the Daily Telegraph obtaining CDs of the records, MPs would probably still be prevaricating and obstructing the release of the information, despite the court order she eventually obtained. But even after the enormity of the expenses scandal, nothing has really changed. The ‘information trade’, the currency of the political establishment, continues as before, restricted to and dependent upon patronage, wealth and influence.
However, Hackgate has done us all a favour. Not only has it revealed the extent of Rupert Murdoch’s power and influence over our politicians, it has uncovered just how complicit our self-serving political elite have been in the ‘arrangement’ with News International and others. It has also served to illustrate the cosy, corrupt relationship that exists between the power elites in this country. Over time, and undetected by a trusting electorate, the British political tradition has been manipulated into becoming a private conversation between elites, be they politicians, policemen or journalists – and all of them trading information beyond our ken.
So where does this leave us, the ill-informed, marginalised electorate? Well, first we need to wake up to the fact that we’ve been excluded from the conversation. Second, we have to recognise that our current model of democracy has been so debased that it is no longer ‘fit for purpose’. Why? Because we’re no longer governed through our trusted institutions of state. Parliament and the judiciary now take second place behind the media, now a part of government not just a tool of government. Third, the way our political parties are funded distorts the political process by allowing individuals and corporations to have undue influence in political decisions. And finally, the corruption of the political decision making process by vested interests using an unfettered and largely unregulated lobbying system. The case for serious political reform is hard to deny.
MPs will return to Westminster in October and pretend all is well. It is not. Until there is real political reform we will continue to limp aimlessly from crisis to crisis, our politicians only able to deliver distorted glacial change in a world of accelerating change. Our political elite will continue to practice their ‘exclusive’, self-serving brand of politics, allowing ‘events’ to provide them with all the excuses they need to avoid making change, and diverting our attention away from what really needs to be done. Unfortunately, the chances of us getting our democracy back are slim. Unless…