7 SEPTEMBER 2023 | OPINION
The Education Secretary’s ITV outburst has sparked an interesting discussion about public interest journalism and what reporters should and shouldn’t publish.
By now, everyone has seen Gillian Keegan’s post-interview outburst on the Government’s handling of the RAAC concrete scandal. As pupils are set to return from their summer holidays, a number of schools have been closed over fears that potentially dangerous concrete could lead to the structural collapse of their buildings.
For those who aren’t aware of Gillian Keegan’s comments, this is the story as I originally wrote it: when questioned by ITV on the government’s response to the concrete scandal, she was caught on camera after the interview revealing her true thoughts on the matter. “Does anyone ever say ‘you know what, you’ve done a f-ing good job because everyone else is sat on their arse and done nothing?’”, she asked the reporter.
I am uninterested in the party politics of the whole ordeal because it doesn’t matter. What I am interested in, however, is the debate that has been borne out of the rather embarrassing moment for the Minister. This discussion over whether it was ‘right’ for ITV to publish her remarks has rather piqued my interest.
Of course, those who are suspicious of journalists will always criticise us where such an opportunity arises – and I’m sure that to some extent the views on this government PR disaster are motivated by party politics. I don’t care for such views.
To publish, or not to publish? That is a question I’m sure those at ITV grappled with when they realised a Secretary of State had quite literally handed them an explosive headline that has now gone on to dominate the media agenda for days now. Particularly when in response to what is in fact a very serious issue, Keegan was careless.
I could draw reference to the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers, but I’m not going to. That would be a rather ridiculous and extreme comparison (although I’m sure some could make it). What I am going to do, however, is argue in favour of ITV’s decision to publish the remarks.
Why? Because firstly, to be blunt, it’s ‘news’. The most obvious argument to make in defence of the journalists who took the decision to broadcast is simply that they were sharing what a person under scrutiny really thought, when she thought the cameras were off. And, to that end, let us not indulge the argument that she was ‘off the record’ – she wasn’t.
This was not a private conversation, a lobby journalist seeking a scoop from an unnamed ‘source close to the PM’, who we really know is a disgruntled Minister. On the contrary, this is an example of a careless politician making off-the-cuff comments that she shouldn’t have made, in a context in which she should have known better. “It’s a newspaper office, not a sanatorium for the deaf”, Armando Iannucci’s fictional spin doctor, Malcolm Tucker, once said – minus the expletives. One cannot help oneself other than to draw a comparison of this silly story to a scene in The Thick of It.
The second point I will make is that no rules were broken. No matter of confidentiality was breached, nor privacy impeded. Keegan’s bluff was not sought out by a dishonest reporter using clandestine methods or any form of trickery that convinced the Education Secretary into revealing personal feelings that she would not have otherwise revealed if she had known she was talking to a journalist. Even if the camera wasn’t recording, the thought must have occurred to her that, in the presence of a journalist, her extraordinary words would be noted.
From the Minister’s tone and body language alone, it is clear Keegan revealed her true feelings towards the media’s scrutiny of the Government over the crumbling concrete crisis. This in itself should warrant some form of acknowledgement that it was in the public interest for ITV to publish.
Because what this discussion comes down to is a judgement of public interest. Her colleagues will say it isn’t a matter of interest to voters, I’m sure. I’m equally certain the MP’s political opponents will use this against her to show she ‘doesn’t care’ and is ‘unfit for the job’. I reiterate that I couldn’t care for these arguments.
Ultimately, is it the public who should decide what is and what isn’t in their interest to know when it comes to what their elected MPs really say when the cameras aren’t rolling? Isn’t there a point to be made that, in this instance, journalists were lucky to catch these remarks on camera?
British politicians have a history of ‘hot mic moments’. Who could forget Gordon Brown describing a voter as a “bigoted woman”, or when David Cameron made a joke at the expense of Yorkshire people? Gillian Keegan is not the first and won’t be last – that’s politics.
In this instance, I would make the point – with passion – that journalists at ITV did a “f-ing good job” in taking their decision.