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Liberal Democrats

F7: Nature of Public Debate during COVID-19

Motion as passed by conference

Federal Policy Committee

Mover: Daisy Cooper MP (Spokesperson for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport).

Summation: Helen Belcher.

Conference believes that a decline in the nature of public debate in recent years has made the task of managing the COVID-19 public health pandemic more difficult - and that the Conservative Government's approach during the pandemic made this situation much worse.

Conference is dismayed to note that, during the first wave of the crisis, public trust in the UK Government's handling of the crisis fell from 70% in mid-April to just 30% in June; and, by the start of June, less than half of Britons trusted the UK government to provide correct information on the pandemic.

Conference notes that international criticism of the UK's approach as complacent and incompetent stood in stark contrast to the Prime Minister's stated pride in the Government's approach, and notes that, to this day, the Prime Minister has continued to defend his chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, who broke lockdown rules.

Conference condemns the use of such political misdirection, the politics of denial and the elitist defence of double standards.

In general, Conference notes with concern that:

  1. The UK government is the most centralised in Europe and that over-centralisation and a lack of transparency in decision-making at the heart of government disconnects people from the decisions that affect their lives.
  2. Politicians and political campaigns have a track record of misrepresenting statistics to manipulate messages rather than informing the public, and obfuscating facts in a manner that has eroded trust in polls, official statistics and news reporting amongst a large percentage of the population.
  3. The scientific community have long-standing concerns about the independence of the UK government's advisory bodies, composed of scientists and other experts who provide their service without payment, and the way that government and opposition parties treat scientific advice and those who provide it.
  4. Social media companies and other tech giants have failed to tackle the spread of fake news and misinformation on their platforms.
  5. The 24-hour news cycle has changed the nature of political journalism to encourage polarisation, binary thinking, over-politicisation, sound bites and extreme controversy, and that this is poorly suited to covering nuanced and complex debates, including public health crises.
  6. There is increasing hostility from some in politics towards the media and journalists, with people denouncing challenging questions or alternative agendas or stories as 'fake news', which has led to an erosion in trust in all politicians and media outlets, with people forming their own social media bubbles and losing the ability to disagree well.
  7. According to the House of Lords Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, power online has been ceded to a "few unelected and unaccountable digital corporations".

During the COVID-19 crisis, Conference also notes with concern that this has led to:

  1. Confusion around the Government's strategy, slow and poor decision-making by the Conservative Government that ignored the warnings from other countries and expert communities, a breakdown of expert and public trust and ultimately one of the worst death tolls from COVID-19 in the world.
  2. Ministers being reprimanded by the UK Statistics Authority several times for presenting statistics in a misleading manner in No.10 daily briefings, as well as being slow to measure fatalities in care homes, stopping international comparisons when it became clear that the UK was performing poorly and not reporting testing statistics in a transparent manner.
  3. A blurring of the lines between scientific advice and political decisions, with repeated mischaracterisation of political decisions as 'following the science' which has caused concern that scientific advisors are being positioned to take the blame for poor political decisions.
  4. Conspiracy theories being spread online causing serious harm, including attacks on 5G masts and the workers involved in installing them, a heightened risk of people drinking bleach, and some people not seeking medical help at all, believing wrongly that medical professionals want to kill them or that entering hospital environments now poses an unacceptable risk.
  5. Unsourced pre-briefings of changes in government advice to friendly journalists which, when reported, sensationalised the scale and meaning of some changes and caused public confusion.
  6. Political attempts to make it harder for journalists to do their jobs and hold the Government to account by, for example, banning reporters from press briefings, not allowing follow-up questions on difficult subjects, preventing specialists from answering questions, and branding challenging outlets as 'campaigning newspapers' when they bring important information to light.
  7. The Government's channelling of state advertisement contracts to the wealthiest press corporations without any requirement to protect journalists' jobs and without evidence that their approach provides value for money for the taxpayer, whilst failing to provide support for smaller independent, investigative, and scientific publishers, despite the particularly important role these types of journalism play in countering the proliferation of fake news and underpinning democracy, especially during pandemics.

Conference believes that:

  1. Radical transparency is essential: open government empowers citizens to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight.
  2. Statistics are an essential public asset and a necessity for informed public policy decisions.
  3. Open public discourse and public participation improves policy-making and builds public trust.
  4. The independence of scientific advisors should be protected.
  5. Publishers and platforms should be subject to effective regulation regarding their content.
  6. A free and accountable media is essential for retaining public trust.
  7. Effectively seeking input from and engaging the public means recognising that not all residents of the UK have equal and fair access to communicating with legislators or accessing public engagement events, and that we must work to ensure that vulnerable and marginalised voices are heard in shaping our response.

Conference calls for:

  1. The Government to re-commit to the principles of open government, starting with an independent assessment of its performance during the COVID-19 pandemic in line with the principles of recent National Action Plans for Open Government.
  2. Parliamentary scrutiny to be intensified during crises, such as through a virtual parliament and a special parliamentary committee to be chaired by a respected opposition party figure.
  3. Mandating the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority to provide regular proactive comment on the presentation of official statistics by Government during COBR level crises.
  4. A review into the appointment and composition of the Scientific Advisory Groups for Emergencies, and the transparency of its decision-making process with a view to embedding the principles of diversity, independence and transparency, which will in future improve decision-making and build public trust and remove any potential for or perception of political or other undue influence.
  5. The Government and parliamentarians to use a range of methods to engage the public with our response and build consensus and trust, including but not limited to residents’ surveys and town hall events for legislators, with particular efforts to ensure that marginalised voices are heard in this process.
  6. The Leveson model of co-regulation for publishers to be extended to all platforms which allow comment from both paid and unpaid contributors.
  7. Government support packages to be made available to independent and corporate publishers on the same basis, with greater transparency around the criteria and process for applying for such funds.
  8. The UK's political journalists to host regular press conferences to which they choose which members of the Government, or bodies and individuals of nationwide political importance, to invite, and determine which journalists and outlets ask questions, using the model of the German Bundespressekonferenz.
  9. A new charitable status created for public interest journalism and tax credits for their subscribers.
  10. Government to introduce stricter regulations for social media companies, to ensure they challenge harmful misinformation and reduce its spread across their platforms, including by:
    1. Issuing fact-checked corrections to scientifically inaccurate posts and ensuring these are seen by all those who shared and were likely to have seen the original inaccurate posts.
    2. Amending their algorithms to de-promote misinformation and ‘fake news’.

Applicability: Federal.

Mover: 7 minutes; summation of motion and movers and summation of any amendments: 4 minutes; all other speakers: 3 minutes.

For eligibility and procedure for speaking in this debate, see page 6.

The deadline for amendments to this motion - see page 8 - and for requests for separate votes - see page 5 - is 13.00, Monday 14 September. Those selected for debate will be printed in Conference Extra and Friday's Conference Daily.

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