Strange times, these …
An incisive cartoonist can grasp the meaning of ‘quasi-judicial’ clearly enough to depict it with diagrammatic accuracy. Yet a British government minister charged with impartiality – the one with oversight of culture, no less – implied in evidence at the Leveson Inquiry that this aspect of a critical part of his job was really, really hard to understand. So difficult, indeed, that he saw only belatedly that there was something wrong with lobbying his cabinet colleagues to look favourably on a $16 billion bid by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. – the phone hacking champion – to take over the TV broadcasting giant BSkyB.
You might think that a cabinet minister should be capable of a less unconvincing defence, but you would be wrong. It was pathetic to watch Jeremy Hunt claim, last week,
This was probably the first time that I heard the phrase quasi-judicial or had some kind of exposure to what the implications of quasi-judicial meant, […] Obviously I did become extremely familiar with what quasi-judicial meant.
Two days before Hunt’s testimony, Michael Gove, another cabinet minister appearing before Leveson – the one in charge of education – defended Murdoch, his good friend and former employer, in ringing oratorical tones. He described him as ‘a great man’. This eye-popping characterisation undoubtedly led others, not just sceptical post-Gutenbergers, to spend a few minutes learning more about such a faithful acolyte of the Digger’s. It took mere seconds to find the Telegraph columnist Tom Chivers, obviously beside himself with glee, telling his readers last June:
So here’s a thing. Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove – the man charged with the schooling of our nation’s children … in an interview with The Times, said: … “What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law.”
Newton’s laws of thermodynamics! That’s Newton (died 1727, expounded the laws of motion in 1687) and the laws of thermodynamics (expounded between 1847 and 1851 by William Thompson, later Lord Kelvin).
And in a letter to the editor of a newspaper, that remark earned Gove six of the best from a cane that whistled as it descended:
I see that Michael Gove thinks that “what [students] need is a rooting in … Newton’s laws of thermodynamics” (Report, 18 June). As a science teacher, what I need is a secretary of state who knows the difference between motion and hot air.
The Politicalscrapbook blog awarded him a dunce’s cap. No one looking on as he tried repeatedly — and dismally failed — to score points off Lord Justice Leveson could have doubted that the error fit the man. Neither he nor Jeremy Hunt seem to realise that even the dimmest members of the public find it impossible to comprehend members of government making excuses or pontificating without using search engines to check for factual accuracy and, or, plausibility, before they open their mouths. … Well, for goodness’ sake, they have aides to do such heavy lifting for them.
Both inexcusable ignorance and arrogance are harder for anyone to get away with now that encyclopaedias have morphed into the free and weightless Wikipedia. The Leveson hearings have let everyone observe human beings at the pinnacle of executive power being courteously but persistently grilled for hours on end. They been allowing us to compare the words of witnesses with body language and the most fleeting facial twitches.
The longer the Inquiry continues, the more new expectations it will create.
Who, after being riveted by judicial interrogations of the high and mighty, month after month, will be willing to put up with less than perfectly transparent and open government?
On Twitter, expressing a private opinion, Adrian Monck – who runs Communications for the World Economic Forum in Geneva – tweeted, after Hunt’s appearance, and in close sympathy with this blog:
RT @amonck: #Leveson should remain as a standing committee on British public life
— Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) May 31, 2012
It is difficult to imagine living without it.