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Baskers

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

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39 Responses

  1. Excellent post, Paul!

  2. keneastwood says:

    Very well said.

    Social media is challenging traditional perspectives and I can understand how, on occasion, it can raise eyebrows in the public sector. Many of us are trying to change that, incrementally, proving the benefits and opportunities presented (not least to significantly reduce cost and increase engagement and transparency).

    I’m employed in a politically restricted post and respect that in my online activity. That restriction and the behavioural expectations associated with seniority, should not prevent individuals being social and sharing their experiences, thoughts and feelings with others who chose to participate in their networks. My sense is that in due course these restrictions on freedom of expression will be lifted. In the meantime, sadly, we will doubtless see more examples where individuals are chastened, disciplined or even prosecuted by an establishment yet to understand the change that is taking place in society and the enormous positive benefits that result.

    The Mail piece is particularly vile and unbalanced and I feel for @baskers. On a positive note, the comments of support and outpouring of emotion evident over Twitter is fantastic to see and will I am sure be of some comfort.

  3. Daniel Kelly says:

    The Daily Fail is a stain on the underpants of society. A dirty skid mark left by the putrid right wing fart of Rupert Murdoch.

  4. V says:

    Please don’t call Quentin Letts a journalist. As I journalist myself, I find it rather insulting.

  5. Steve Lawson says:

    lovely lovely writing, sir. It’s amazing what a difference *actually knowing someone* can do to one’s ability to write an accurate, balanced, fair, profile of that person and what drives them. Letts’ rancid salivating feigned outrage is orders of magnitude more destructive and atrophying to humanity than someone who admits to having a drink on a *social* network. Bullying hidden behind the smokescreen of pseudo-polite language and the under the banner of a national paper is no less detestable than stealing the dinner money from school kids. Letts is filth.

  6. Katie Moffat says:

    Brilliant post Paul. My it’s hard to articulate exactly how much I detest the Daily Mail.

  7. Stuart North says:

    An excellently written piece of work Paul and I agree with your sentiments entirely.

  8. Ed says:

    Well said paul.. soon almost everybody other than the editorial staff of the Daily Mail will have been pilloried by that obnoxious rag !

  9. HF says:

    You have breached every aspect of the Civil Service Code.

  10. Penny Mead says:

    Well said, what a sorry society we live in when decent ordinary people can be so easily attacked in the gutter press for being human.

  11. draml says:

    Brilliantly put, Paul.

    Wish I could come up with more to contribute, but right now I’m just too angry to be sensible.

  12. @gabysslave says:

    Excellently balanced piece. Sarah Baskerville should be championed rather than reviled a la Letts as an example of how civil servants are human and engaged in more than the parts of their official duty. I have met her and was charmed by her real passion and integrity. I was also reassured by the thought that real grounded people are in Whitehall. Quentin Letts is yet again unmasked as a lazy and ill informed, 2 dimensional piece without any redeeming value and an example of lazy journalism. Paul as usual your post is as elegant as your photograph of her. Well said!

  13. Rez says:

    Excellent post, but the Mail and Letts care not for “reality”, all they want is attention-grabbing rhetoric to feed their eyeball-counts.

    Why aren’t we demanding a) an official apology from the Mail for causing distress, b) an apology from Letts for same, and c) a termination of Letts from his position?

  14. Alex Butler says:

    Thank you Paul for being so eloquent as usual. As you know i had more than a hand in drafting the guidance for civil servants and their use of social media. In the past few years I’m pleased to say that we’ve opened up to real and honest debate. Whether or not you agree with Sarah B she is one of those windows into our world.
    Do Daily Mail readers seriously want the civil service to be silent bureaucrats? Or part of their communities – on or offline.
    I am so angry. I feel that the Mail has crossed another line- and Quentin Letts is just another of their bullying, hideous thugs.

  15. Letts is a politician. That’s why he wrote that piece. It has nothing to do with anything other than his own personal dogma. It’s a dogma that allows bankers to play fast and loose with our money but not one that allows people who don’t agree with his dogma to have an opinion.

    At times like this I’m just glad I am freelance because that allows me to do and say whatever the fuck I want. And long be it so.

  16. Britt Warg says:

    Very well written and to the point, Paul. I’m as angry as you are about this and it hurts even more when you actually know the person in question and know what a lovely, open and generous person she is. It would of course be just as wrong had she been a right bitch, but – you get my point.

    I just wanted to mention one little detail that shows how slimey the Daily Mail (so called) journos – in this case Quentin Letts – are: At the end of his rant about Sarah, he writes the following:

    “Transport Secretary Philip Hammond is one of the more serious members of the Cabinet. He is unlikely to be enchanted by Ms Baskerville or her witterings.”

    This is of course nothing but a loose assumption of Lett’s. However, in Daily Mail’s view, this assumption merits a BIG photo of the minister NEXT TO the dreadful headline, thus making any reader who only go for the headlines think that these words are actually those of said minister.

    Just that detail says it all about the publication, in my view.

  17. jennifer jones says:

    Nothing else to add but very well said.

  18. […] the subject of an attack by the Daily Mail for her twitter account. It caught my attention because Paul Clarke wrote an excoriating rebuttal on his blog. What is different is not just the more rapid appearance of a strong defence, but the […]

  19. Neil Cocker says:

    I think “hate” is one of the most over-used words in the English dictionary. But I genuinely hate the Daily Mail. I despise everything it stands for. It is a cancer on our country and it’s disgusting that it is ever allowed to come under the banner of journalism.

  20. Neil Cocker says:

    Sorry, it seems Disqus has done something odd with my stupid attempt at mock-HTML…

  21. Craig McGill says:

    I would imagine that this is actually more internal politics than anything. Someone in her work doesn’t like her/see the benefits of her digital activity and has went and put the boot in.

  22. Craig McGill says:

    It might be internal politics and someone putting the boot in too. Similarly, most old school people still have issues identifying with people having an actual opinion via digital.

    But there is another point: was she meant to be talking digitally about her job or not? Was she in breach of HR? Was this just her personal stuff. Glad for the links though.

  23. […] However, this is not a high-ranking civil servant or a publicaly elected policitian. Baskerville is a mid-grade CS, who is tweeting within the bounds layed down by civil servant policy, as attested to by the guy who wrote the rules. […]

  24. rob reeves says:

    So we are not aloud to express are PERSONAL views in this FREEDOM OF SPEECH SOCIETY???

  25. Thom Townsend says:

    Firstly, must state five things.

    1) Loathe the Daily Mail
    2)Loathe Letts
    3) Like Twitter
    4)Like people who think for themselves.
    5) Like booze

    Some questions though?

    1) My boss would be very unhappy to know I was hungover at work. I therefore don’t tell twitter as everyone in our office and almost everyone we work with is a follower.

    2) Civil servants are hired to explicitly non-partisan. A little stupid to put your job title in your profile, and use the same account for work stuff (good idea) as party political stuff?

  26. Anonymous says:

    Thom – good comments: some thoughts on them.

    1) We don’t know anything about Sarah’s office culture, how hierarchical or casual it is, or whatever. It’s tempting to read across from how you or I might interact with our colleagues, and reach judgements, but that isn’t really the point at issue here, which is one of personal expression of views in a medium which we’re know lies somewhere between “private” and “public broadcast”, but we’re not exactly sure where.

    2) This is quite important. The Civil Service Code says you are “expected to carry out your role with dedication and a commitment to the Civil Service and its core values: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality” – I may do another post with a more detailed analysis of these points, but I am rather reluctant to: what I’m getting at is that there are processes for assessing this which don’t involve public dissection in the papers. I will just note that the Code is written on the basis of performance “in role” – I would question whether these tweets amounted to acts “within role” and certainly whether any form of official act, decision or advice given could be said to have been jeopardised by any personal views, whether expressed in social media or not.

    That is the point of the Code. Not to ensure that civil servants become muted, insensitive robots, but that their official duties aren’t coloured by inappropriate personal opinions. There’s a big difference there. Some posts (either because of grade or duties) require the renunciation of political affiliation, and this also happens in the run up to elections. None of these circumstances applied in this case as far as I am aware.

  27. yorkhannah says:

    I was interviewing a man the other day in the course of my research, he gave me his opinions on a subject with beer in hand. His second that morning. It was midday. He then went on to his job, driving machinery that lifted heavy items. I’m far more nervous about him than I am about Baskers having a hangover at work!
    That said, we all now know that’s not a good idea to refer to excess in our twitter stream in large part because apparently bored and lazy journalists can use this to undermine, useful, critical and well crafted insight into difficult times in the civil service.

    I’m really sorry this is happening to Sarah and especially that she seems to have been selected as ‘special’ amongst the many public sector workers on twitter to hone in on. I hope that her employers are able to spend time reading her blog (if they didn’t already) and not take this and the Independent’s article at face value. It is an unfortunate time for this to arise and for them to feel under fire but it shouldn’t be used to shut down all attempts at allowing staff to develop their external networks using social media and certainly not to threaten Sarah’s position.

    On the slim chance it does, Sarah should consider a job as a columnist, I think underlying this is that blogs are effectively putting them out of a job by no longer supplying whistleblowers for them to use.

  28. yorkhannah says:

    So, we all now know that’s not a good idea to refer to excess (alcohol, cake, friendship…) in our twitter stream in large part because apparently bored and lazy journalists can use this to undermine, useful, critical and well crafted insight into difficult times in the civil service.

    I’m really sorry this is happening to Sarah and especially that she seems to have been selected as ‘special’ amongst the many public sector workers on twitter to hone in on. I hope that her employers are able to spend time reading her blog (if they didn’t already) and not take this and the Independent’s article at face value. It is an unfortunate time for this to arise and for them to feel under fire but it shouldn’t be used to shut down all attempts at allowing staff to develop their external networks using social media and certainly not to threaten Sarah’s position.

    On the slim chance it does, Sarah should consider a job as a columnist, I think underlying this is that blogs are effectively putting them out of a job by no longer supplying whistleblowers for them to use.

  29. Stephengg says:

    The awful thing is that many people buy the Daily Mail and believe what it prints. Those people will never see the balanced view

  30. […] Baskers – What a nasty little piece of work in the Mail today. Do I need to link to it? http://paulclarke.com/honestlyreal/2010/11/baskers/#disqus_thread […]

  31. […] will, and is probably designed to, scare public servants away from revealing themselves to be human beings with feelings and hangovers, and discourage them from using social media for fear of ending up pilloried in the […]

  32. […] prompted by a negative, random and unjustified comment. But the national media is just as bad, if not worse. So the fear of a witch hunt means people will be reluctant to […]

  33. […] Stephen Fry popularised Twitter in this country (and changed it forever) and seen the tabloid media slaughter hard working people just because they were easy targets. Throughout all the Premierships footballers, pitch-fork […]

  34. […] Honestlyreal – Baskers […]

  35. […] With social networks and what they’re capable of achieving, one person to another, in comparison those corporate pipes can seem slow and rusty; their media is intrusive; punditry without understanding the user experience is uninformed. […]

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