Political versus administrative communications on Twitter: the Boris Johnson case

Yesterday current Mayor of London Boris Johnson renamed the Twitter account from @MayorofLondon to @BorisJohnson and kept more than 200000 followers. The URL listed with Twitter is now the website of Boris’s re-election site and not the GLA site as previously. There are posts at Liberal Conspiracy and Political Scrapbook explaining what happened, and The Guardian has also picked up on it.

The issue here essentially boils down to your answer to one question: is there any longer any point in insisting on the separation of party political and governmental (i.e. supposedly impartial) communications?

If your answer is that there is still a need for a separation, then Boris is clearly in breach of the rules. The Twitter account in question was established after the 2008 elections, staff time from officials at the GLA was used to maintain it, and – prior to the username change – the account was prominently displayed on the GLA website, a site maintained by the administration that is supposedly above party politics. It’s an even more flagrant breach than the William Hague case I’ve previously debated.

If you contend (as in this tweet by Paul Evans) that the separation of the governmental and political doesn’t matter any more, then today’s argument is a storm in a teacup.

The reason I have a problem with the latter approach is that the UK has never really had a proper debate about the party politicisation of its administration. If anyone knows anything about the civil service (and by extension, officials working at City Hall) is that it is supposed to be impartial. Modern communications – where the medium, message and person are mixed – can make the distinction rather absurd, yet riding roughshod over the remains of the rules is no good either. If we need a new relationship between party politics and administration then we need to debate it as such, not just switch a Twitter account and assume it’s fine to do so (Boris) or just complain loudly (everyone on the Labour side).

Other similar examples in other sectors do not help us much either. Laura Kuenssberg taking her followers from BBC to ITV is the closest equivalent, but the move was agreed amicably by the BBC (so she says), and as far as I am aware Kuenssberg writes all her tweets herself – not the case for Boris. Phone Dog in the USA is also suing a former employee for taking followers when he left the company but we don’t yet know the outcome of that case.

The problem too is that the author/message, and its media/reach are intrinsically intertwined on Twitter. Some combination of Boris himself and his administration amassed the more than 200000 followers. If we compare it to Boris writing an op ed in a newspaper then the number of people Boris’s piece reaches is going to be determined by the paper itself and not by Boris himself or his piece.

The reach of the a social media profile is based on the relationship the profile has with each of its readers, and readers follow a particular profile expecting a certain type of content. A citizen of any political colour has an interest in following the institutions that govern them, but which politicians they follow will to a greater extent depend on their political views. Changing an account from institutional to political calls this into question.

So what should happen?

It would actually not be hard to separate the party political and administrative comms for someone in Boris’s position. A party political, personal Twitter account could be maintained by the politician and his political staff (even if these are taxpayer funded – i.e. SpAds and equivalents – and you could even make the case for there being more of them), and linked to the politician’s political website. A further administrative account (@LondonGov or something like that in this case) could then be used for the governmental comms. If the political account chooses to RT something from the governmental account, so be it, but the administrative account would not RT the political account. When the politician leaves office, his/her followers stay with him/her, while the governmental followers transfer to the next administration. Everyone would know where they stand. Too much to ask?

As for the Boris Johnson case: the account should be returned to the GLA and should not be used by anyone during the election campaign as resources from the impartial administration have clearly been used in its creation, production of content, and increasing its reach, and the two account solution put in place thereafter (of course applying to @ken4london and not Boris!)

[UPDATE – 21 March, 0700]
As Adam Bienkov points out on Twitter, everything has now been switched back – @MayorofLondon is once again the account with more than 200k followers. It’s not yet clear how or if this account will be used during the election period.

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7 comments

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  3. Adrian Short

    I don’t see any novel issue here.

    Elected politicians have always had official responsibilities and the resources to discharge them, along with personal/political activities and separate private resources for those.

    Boris was just completely out of order from the outset with this one and anyone with a modicum of understanding of British public life would have known that. Including, presumably, himself, given that he was upbraided for doing something similar in 2009.

  4. Jon

    No. Give him the party political resources he needs to communicate properly, and leave it at that. Incumbency is strong enough as it is – we don’t need it to be strengthened further!

  5. Paul Evans (@Paul0Evans1)

    No. Accept that a politician won an election.

    Win the election as a politician and govern as one.

    If he derives any real advantage from resources given to him by the public sector, then it’s wrong, but that bargain is far from clear. If anything Boris has made the Mayorality *more* visible.

  6. Jon

    So keep the @Boris account party political! Problem solved.

  7. Paul Evans (@Paul0Evans1)

    Then divorce the title ‘Mayor of London’ from Boris’ personality? Seriously, if Boris’ tweets from @mayoroflondon were purely administrative messages, no-one would follow them.

    The point of Mayors (a stupid idea in themselves IMHO) is to give people personalities they can relate to. Boris having two accounts would be like Ken over-paying his taxes for public appearances. Both daft ideas.