Nov 13, 2010
What a nasty little piece of work in the Mail today. Do I need to link to it? If you’re reading this I guess you know the one. “Civil servant drinks booze; gets bored sometimes; feels things; has a pulse; communicates” – yeah, that one. Nice work from Quentin Letts.
For the prosecution: civil servant Sarah Baskerville says unforgivable things about drinking, having hangovers, government policy and the effect of cuts on public service workers. She dares to express herself during her working day. And we’re paying for all this!
And rationally? Sarah is a human being. A warm, funny, socially busy woman who is part of many communities – government finance and techies, public service union activism, and many circles of friendship through social media. She’s allowed, at her pay grade, to be involved in the activist things she does, incidentally. She’s never hidden those. Like many more junior staff it’s her work to get involved and tell her colleagues what’s going on that gives many a say and a stake in issues that will directly involve their working lives. It’s part of a supportive personal style that’s evident in all her interaction, on and offline.
She also does rather more, at her pay grade, than many. She’s contributing an enormous amount of her knowledge on how the minutiae of government finance works to the teams developing a better public understanding of where our money is spent. Teams who are working for nothing, other than a commitment to a cause of transparency and understanding. It says a lot for the standard of journalism in this piece that any attempt to dig deeper than the surface of a twitter stream must have just seemed like so much hard work.
I wonder if there’s a further agenda lurking here that made Letts and the Mail feel it was acceptable to have a go at Baskers. A woman. A woman who drinks, lots sometimes (and doesn’t give a stuff who knows about it, because she’s confident in who she is). A woman with an ideology that questions and challenges government policy at times. A woman who questions and challenges per se. Someone who believes in the rights of public sector workers, and who isn’t afraid to get stuck in, through union organisation or personally, to defend what she believes in. All pretty terrifying stuff to Mr Letts, I suspect.
I have news for Mr Letts. His concept of a world of silent, unfeeling automata (in Whitehall, and plenty of other places, including – I hazard – our newspaper industry) is out of touch. Sarah, and countless thousands like her, are living life in a wider way now. Being open and honest about their reality, their perceptions and their feelings. It’s usually overlooked by many that Twitter is a subscription service. Sarah isn’t “broadcasting” in any meaningful sense here (ironically Mr Letts has done far more in the cause of broadcast through this pointless and misguided piece than Sarah might ever have achieved through social media). The only people who read her content are those who are interested: as a friend, a technical collaborator, someone sharing similar interests, oh, and a small group of sweating researchers in a horrid little office somewhere trying to dredge up a story for a rather desperate journalist. Being publicly available isn’t the same as being consumed, you know. They sell the Mail across the road from me. Doesn’t mean I read it ;)
Sarah’s played things straight: her twitter account is presented as her own views, not those of her employer. Would you like me to find a dozen, or hundreds, of similar examples, not just from the civil service but from major PLCs, the military and even – would you believe – the world of journalism?
I believe that a world where people can be human, can express the bad as well as the good, can cry and rage and cheer with ease, and reach out to others to support (or to challenge) is a better one. Were Quentin Letts able to be honest enough to record and share more of his own insights and experiences–what he secretly fears, what he dreams of, what he is passionate about–I can’t help but feel he and those round him would be the richer. I pity him a little that he can’t.
Barely a word of this will make sense to (or even probably be read by) those who will seize on the Mail piece as further evidence of Whitehall waste and the decline of a once-noble civil service. But I’m happy to put it out there anyway. You may take it, as with Sarah’s online content, as you find it. It’s your choice.
UPDATE 14 Nov: a couple of links to Sarah’s own blog added within the post, as further illustration of the points made