Here is an irony upon an irony upon an irony. You heard how Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s political transparency speech was not to be found on the internet. You heard too how he used it to endorse the political transparency pledge prime minister David Cameron made while seeking election.
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Now get this: the Conservative party pulled the speech from its website just weeks before Cameron announced Schmidt as an advisor in February 2009. How’s that for transparency?
It was deleted amidst an earlier purge of speeches the Conservative Party did after Cameron told voters they could use the internet to hold it account. This preceded the purge it did in October last year – when the Conservative Party deleted its “Speeches Archive” and records of other public statements going back 10 years.
You heard it here first: it did the earlier purge when it overhauled its website in Autumn 2008, after its political transparency schtick was well established. This deleted at least its video archive of speeches from the 2006 Conservative Party Conference. It effectively deleted the only copy of Schmidt’s political transparency speech that existed anywhere on the internet.
Asked why it had deleted the speech, a Conservative Party spokesman said it had never existed at all. The Conservatives had therefore not deleted it. Because it was never there.
“The Schmidt speech was never on our website,” he said. “We had a policy that only elected representative’s speeches would go on our website.”
Google itself too claimed the speech never existed.
But prominent data transparency expert Owen Boswarva found it in an obscure corner of the internet early this week.
He found it by navigating through a copy of the Conservative website, recorded by the UK Web Archive in 2007. The Archive withholds its records from search engines. So the Schmidt speech does exists on the internet, but only in the way Lord Lucan exists on the planet. You certainly won’t find him on Google.
UK Archive records confirmed that its bot clocked Schmidt’s political transparency speech on the Conservative website numerous times in 2008. But the speech was gone on its last visit that year, on 9 December. Two months later, on 9 February, Cameron announced Schmidt’s appointment as a Conservative policy advisor.
Schmidt not being a member of parliament had nothing to do with the deletion either. The Conservative Party published speeches other non-members gave at the 2006 conference. It published a transcript of a speech Zoya Phan, human rights activist, gave on the same day as Schmidt’s. It published a transcript and video of a speech senator John McCain gave two days before Schmidt.
All these speeches were deleted in the 2008 purge, along with chancellor George Osborne’s “Economic Policy for a New Generation” (that’s now gone), and Cameron’s “The Best is Yet to Come” (gone). And all the others, like McCain’s and Phan’s. All gone.
That conference was the big launch of Cameron’s bid to be PM. The Conservative Party billed it as “A New Direction”. It was nevertheless magnanimous enough then to keep an archive of old speeches and conferences. That is the sort of thing the new Conservatives did – even if it meant giving punters an archive of old, negative campaigns. Sunlight simply doesn’t discriminate.
Regardless of the reasons why it went on to delete those conference speeches in 2008, the act suggests the Conservative Party was not as resolute in carrying out its pledge of political transparency as the now prime minister said.
It did subsequently establish a brilliant archive of news and speeches, going back more than 10 years. B ut the 2008 purge and other investigations show it was incomplete. This may have only been tardiness. But tardiness may have given cover to nudge-nudge deletions. Or the holes may have been wholly curated.
The Conservative Party’s new, new direction does not appear to include political transparency, which may explain why it deleted its entire archive once and for all in October. Conservative Party HQ said it would make more important information more visible. It would not say who will deliver Cameron’s pledge of political transparency if not himself.
A spokesman would only say: “Our website makes it quick and easy to access the most important information we provide. Our long-term plan to secure a better future for Britain and our children and the difficult decisions we’ve taken to clear up Labour’s mess.
“Archived content is available for anyone to view on the internet.”
… if you happen to know precisely where it is or can spare hours to look for it.
The party’s U-turn is inexplicable. It seemed irreversible in Google’s heyday, when Cameron stepped into the light and declared it would edify us all. But politics may have decided it is inconvenient to treat voters as adults. There is too much to be gained by treating them like idiots. Edifying party archives will be replaced by soundbite video-clips, bright lights, and big buttons you can stab your fingers at. Ug.
There’s no need for past speeches when politics is led not by debate but marketing. Even speeches like the one given by Google’s billionaire chairman, that the Conservative Party used to make its transparency schtick look credibile in the eyes of voters. You would think a party that stood for transparency would make sure it kept Schmidt’s speech in a prominent place, since he did it for the sake of a party that would do business with him when it won power.
Before it won power, and after his transparency speech was deleted, Schmidt helped formulate Conservative Party policy as a member of Cameron’s Economic Recovery Committee.
After it won power, the Treasury appointed Schmidt to its Business Advisory Group, and while Google was left paying very little tax, the search giant gave its backing to at least one controversial political initiative championed by the PM. And still Schmidt’s transparency speech is remains all but deleted history.