Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Liberal Youth: when you're the Returning Officer, everyone's a critic

I have been the subject of some criticism for my recent ruling, preventing the publication in 'The Libertine', Liberal Youth's e-newsletter, of an article by a member of its Editorial Committee, Alasdair Wood. Perhaps I should, therefore, explain my reasoning, now that Alasdair has published the intended piece on his own blog.

Censorship is a dirty word, especially in liberal circles, and there seems to be a view out there that, by preventing publication as intended, I am somehow engaged in a programme of 'censorship and attempts to silence', as that well known liberal, Tory Bear, describes it. Others, Alasdair included, seem to think that a factual (as he puts it) report on the elections is perfectly legitimate.

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I'm not a censor by inclination, indeed I've opened up the campaigning element of these elections by allowing endorsements, freeing up the use of Facebook and encouraging debate. However, there are channels of communication that need to remain properly neutral, and those that don't.

The official publication of Liberal Youth, for example, has a formal status, and expresses the view of the organisation as a whole, unless clearly marked as an opinion piece. If an opinion piece is written about an election which is underway at the time, and it is to be published in 'The Libertine', then it should not be prejudicial in favour, or against, any candidate. I considered the content of the article, and belived it to be contentious and potentially prejudicial to the concept of a campaign whereby candidates stand or fall on the merits of their ability and campaigning ability.

It is the policy of Liberal Democrat News that, during leadership and Presidential elections, it remains entirely neutral and I ruled earlier in the campaign that official communications channels of Liberal Youth should not be used for campaigning purposes, either for or against a particular candidate, applying a similar principle. Otherwise, it would be possible for a senior, influential figure in Liberal Youth to ensure favourable coverage of their activities during an election campaign to the detriment of their opponent. Indeed, if any candidate had control of 'The Libertine' at such a time, they could potentially use it as a means of reaching every member of the organisation with a positive message in their favour. Such a possibility needs to be prevented in order to maintain that equality of opportunity we so treasure as liberals.

On the other hand, individuals are at liberty to publish anything they wish on their own media, be it a blog, Facebook or other social networking sites. Indeed, two articles have been posted on Liberal Democrat Voice on the subject of Liberal Youth in the past fortnight. I have no intention of preventing that form of communication, although the laws of defamation do potentially apply (not my decision, I emphasise, merely cautionary advice to anyone foolish enough to test the limits of acceptable commentary).

Alasdair has chosen to do that, and he has a right to do so, as it is clear that this represents his personal view on the events of the past two months. However, his expectation that I should hasten to explain my ruling to him, and his stance that the decision to publish is linked in some way to my failure to do so within a timescale of his choosing does irritate me to some extent. I am, as I occasionally like to remind people, a volunteer, i.e. I perform my Returning Officer duties in my spare time. Astonishingly, I do have other things to do, for example, my job, my responsibilities as a Local Party Officer, a member of a English Party committee, and, oh yes, the rest of my life.

Liberal Youth requires a Returning Officer who is not a member of the organisation, and who actually knows how elections should be run. That limits the number of potential volunteers quite dramatically, even before you consider how many of them might not be willing to field telephone calls at midnight or at work, to have their weekends disturbed by a stream of e-mails and text messages, or to have to deal with individuals who are quite angry about something but can only think of the Returning Officer as the person best suited to a session of spleen-venting. Oh yes, and there are no expenses in it...

There are those whose opinions I value who believe that I was mad to take on this assignment, and are amazed that I intend to continue in post, subject to the approval of the incoming Executive Committee. However, internal democracy comes with a cost, and for the timebeing I am willing to bear it for the good of Liberal Youth, an organisation I firmly believe in - after all, I was Secretary General, Secretary, International Officer, President and Treasurer of its predecessor organisations, the Young Liberals and then the Young Liberal Democrats.

And I'm perfectly happy to justify my rulings, even if I don't actually have to. After all, the constitution clearly states that any ruling I make can be appealed to the Appeals Board. So perhaps before criticising, you might actually ask yourself why I might have made the ruling I have. The answer might be staring you in the face...


Anonymous said...

Brilliant explanation Mark, thank you.
LY is very lucky to have you.

Richard Gadsden said...

As an ex-LDYS RO, I just wanted to thank you for finding the energy to do one of the toughest and least-thanked jobs that politics has to offer.

Oh, and that article was about as neutral as a manifesto.

Auberius said...

More power to your elbow Mark, clearly the right decision.

Alasdair W said...

I do now accept your ruling that it shouldn't have been published in the Libertine. As for example you explained how someone could be in control of the Libertine that would push it in favour of a candidate.
I note you said " I ruled earlier in the campaign that official communications channels of Liberal Youth should not be used for campaigning ", It is a shame that no one made it clear to me. I was originally been asked to cover the elections for the Libertine, had we thought about this, we would have known we simply couldn't cover the elections because no one can be completely unbiased.

I appologize for any trouble I have caused you. The wording I used to explain why the article hadn't been accepted, wasn't appropiate. I did not wish to cause you any trouble but to try and provide a wake up call for the Executive. So I fully apologize for any problems for you I've caused. It's not your fault and I accept your judgement.

I was able to publish on the blog, which I had the right to do and that would be the right media to channel this kind of article through. My article would have been the only one in the Libertine on the elections and your judgement makes sence and may protect future elections from dangerous bias in the Libertine.