It has never been easier to mass-shame politicians, yet never have politicians seemed so shameless: the constitutional implications of a modern political paradox

23rd November 2020

The internet and modern communications technology mean that it has never been easier to to mass shame those with political power.

Only twenty-five or so years ago it was virtually impossible for any person to publish anything critical about politicians without going through a traditional ‘gate keeper’ – you could write a letter to a newspaper, send a manuscript to a publishing house, or telephone a radio or television show.

But it was almost always a decision of somebody else if your critical views got wider circulation.

Determined people could, of course, publish their own pamphlets, or publish a book through a ‘vanity press’, or start their own pirate radio station in the English channel.

Such eccentricity, however, was relatively rare.

Now anyone with everyday electronic devices can publish their views to the world.

It has been an extraordinary development in the history of communications, akin in its significance to the developments of writing and then of printing.

(And a development the implications of which have perhaps not been fully worked through socially, culturally, or legally.)


Alongside this development seems to have been an opposite and equal political reaction.

For, although it has never been easier to mass-shame those with political power, it appears that those with political power have never been so shameless.

As long as their (minority) political blocs are mobilised and committed, various populist politicians – from Trump and Bannon in the United States to Johnson, Farage and Cummings in the United Kingdom, and others elsewhere – do not care that there is mass online criticism of their positions.

Indeed, the loud ‘liberal’ reaction is taken to validate and enhance their political appeals to their bases.

And it may be that this shamelessness is affecting constitutional practice.

Until fairly recently constitutional practice in the United Kingdom and the United States, and perhaps elsewhere, rested on constitutional conventions.

Such conventions do not have the force of law and so cannot be litigated.

Instead, the conventions were followed partly because their overall utility was considered obvious (any government minister who might have flouted a convention would realise she or he may be in opposition again one day).

But conventions were also followed because a failure to do so would lead to significant political disapproval.

Others would ‘tut’.

And in a small self-contained political world, such tuttery mattered.

But now, when there is constant appeals to political bases, such tuttery does not matter at all.

The Bannons and the Cummings of the political worlds do not care about disapproval of political elites.

Nor do the Trumps and the Johnsons.

And so we have one paradox of modern politics: never have politicians been more accountable on an everyday basis for their actions, and never have they seemed so indifferent to accountability.

This, one hopes, may be a short-term thing: the opportunism of a certain group of political charlatans at a particular time.

Perhaps constitutionalism and respect for constitutional norms will reassert itself after this rush of heady populism.

Perhaps things may get back to normal.


But, if not, we need to work out better ways of enforcing constitutionalism and the respect for constitutional norms than tutting.

For even with the amplification of internet and modern communications technology, mere mass-tuttery will not be sufficient. 


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26 thoughts on “It has never been easier to mass-shame politicians, yet never have politicians seemed so shameless: the constitutional implications of a modern political paradox”

  1. Part of the problem is that the Internet’s lack of gatekeepers doesn’t make for better criticism, it simply makes for more noise.

    If one person speaks in a quiet room, everybody listens. If everybody shouts in a noisy room, nobody listens.

    1. It is not difficult to set up a quiet room on the internet: we have one here.
      The problem is resolving the paradox of having a quiet room, but still reaching very many people.
      Perhaps the answer is in a hierarchy.
      The pinnacle of the quiet rooms would be like parliament, and any issue that needs to be noisy can be taken off to a quiet room by itself, to refine and decide the points for which it seeks address.
      Each member should have their own room to discuss issues with their constituents.
      Any those rooms can form additional rooms as deemed appropriate.
      This is the internet: there is plenty of room for rooms, and it is easy to be in many rooms at once.

      1. An insightful analogy, thank you. For it to be a more complete picture of how the current internet works, one might need to add its pervasive surveillance. In your ‘parliament’ as any issue is taken into a quiet room and as people ‘speak’ and ‘points’ are refined, those individuals taking part are constantly being watched. Not by a big brother (though some may be) but rather by a few commercial AI engines that accumulate knowledge about each of those people’s fears and anxieties. Those algorithms then constantly run correlations on that cumulative data to figure out how to keep the people glued to their screens and therefore how best to monetise their eyeball time. Extreme emotions of fear and rage generally provide the best return on such investment, and so the shrillness of our debate in those quiet rooms and outside rises ever so slightly over time.

        If people, for example, had to pay to use the internet, the need for those AI engines may recede and their business model may be dented. The politics of that proposition would of course be very difficult.

        As it is the current internet set-up has been compared to a satnav with its own agenda. One doesn’t necessarily notice how it nudges us in one or the other direction and we are seemingly in control on a daily basis, but over longer term we arrive somewhere we had no intention of going.

  2. Really interesting blog post. My take: this isn’t about personalities (mostly), but rather two wider political forces which aren’t going away any time soon: namely, increasing levels of tribalism and epistemic closure, especially on the right.

    If your tribe holds a plurality of seats then you have two choices: try to widen your appeal to achieve a majority, or try to bind them more closely to you. (If you don’t have a plurality then you *have* to widen your appeal – there’s no other option.) Appealing to victimhood (“look how they’re persecuting us!”) is a very powerful way of binding supporters. Shamelessness = feigned victimhood.

    BTW this is true of both sides of the aisle – the Corbynites’ complaints about the evils done to their hero are a mirror image of how, for instance, the Telegraph’s opinion writers operate.

    The other big force is epistemic closure – the tendency of political tribes to consume only friendly media and avoid dissenting views. Again, not just the Tories (compare e.g. Guido Fawkes to Sqwarkbox). But arguably this is more powerful on the right due to its domination of print media.

    I would argue that the personalities are a direct product of these forces – they wouldn’t have gained prominance without them. Which means that political shamelessness isn’t just transient, it’s increasingly structural. Look to the US for how this ends.

    1. Thank you for posting this insightful comment which you had originally posted on Twitter and re-posted here at my request. Much appreciated.

  3. All this is just so true. But surely in fact the “paradox” you mention overlies a causal relationship between the ubiquity of “shaming” and its lack of substantive effect. What I mean is that it’s the very fact that this overused word “shame” is bandied around social and other media incessantly which has led to the word’s devaluation. The genuinely shameless politicians like Trump and Johnson know that whether they are honest, reasonable etc etc or not they will be “shamed”, so why bother to make any pretence of being things?

  4. Thanks for highlighting this interesting paradox. And also for the delightful neologism “tuttery”!

    If I may be so bold as to point out a minor grammatical error: in the sentence “But now, when there is constant appeals to political bases, such tuttery does not matter at all”, “is” should be replaced by “are” (since its object “appeals” is plural).

    1. I too was delighted by the neologism of “tuttery” not not least by imagining it pronounced in DAG Brummy.
      As a generalisation the proliferation of media of communication: email, Twitter, text etc etc the more the quality of communications is dissipated. As to shamelessness in politics, surely it is nearly as prevalent in business too and comes from the top.

  5. When I am feeling positive, I think about the fact these technologies are quite new – a generation at most – and that we will in time work out how to handle them properly. At the moment extreme voices can take advantage of people not yet knowing how to handle it. Maybe in time people on Twitter (like me) will be treated with the same respect as the people handing out pamphlets in the street.

  6. I am not sure how effective the “tut tuttery” actually was.

    Both the main parties had reason to avoid too much debate over their funding – the Labour Party did not want its union links given more prominence than necessary and the Conservative Party had reason to avoid too much discussion of its links with the beerage, property and “river companies”.

    There were some no go areas – anyone taking money to do something in the Commons was likely to suffer badly. However a number of questions that might have been asked are delicately avoided by distinguished biographers – why did Max Aitken receive a baronetcy in George V’s coronation honours? How did Disraeli die a rich man?

    One might also recall some disobliging comments in Private Eye of the “userer of the valleys” and other businessmen with colourful records.

  7. Sadly, the internet has become a vehicle for re-enforcement of beliefs, regardless of how ludicrous they are. Think the perfect example is the whole thing around Andrew Wakefield, a man who in every respect was discredited, had his professional standing removed, manages to make himself a hero to those that demand that there is an inherent danger in vaccines – the very thing that has after soap, clean water, been the single biggest contributor to improved mortality in human history.

    I am of the belief that we need to see laws that make people responsible for their claims on the internet. A good place to start would be in making organisations like Facebook, Twitter, criminally liable for the most outrageous claims allowed on their platforms. That internet providers, are made co-responsible for those that host the most ridiculous platforms with disinformation at their hearts.

    However, the real starting point, that the criminal levels of disinformation spread by media outlets like Fox News, The Daily Express, The Daily Mail etc etc. are made to publish balanced reports, for every story that says that covid is a conspiracy, same column space / time on why that view is probably wrong. That individual, journalists, are made to carry personal liability for reports like, “the US election was stolen”.

  8. “Now anyone … can publish …extraordinary development in the history of communications, akin in its significance to the developments of writing and then of printing.”

    It isn’t so much ability to publish that is extraordinary in this context, but rather the ‘information bubbles’ arising from the decisions that the algorithms make on what to show to which users who all have a limited ‘eyeball time’. Our initial assumption that the information on the internet should be ‘free’ led to algorithms that are remunerated with eyeball time. Users’ rage or elation (but more rage) generate such eyeball time best. In addition, people sign up to publications they like and keep virtual company of like minded friends. Then there is the network effect of these algorithms that naturally leads to oligopolies (in absence of regulatory action, as has been the case so far).

    The political consequences for radicalisation of groups of people, living in their own information bubbles, goaded into their daily rages by the algorithms that select what they see and make money off their rage are now coming into clearer view in both the US and the EU.

    1. Disagree – the ability of a person to circulate a publication beyond their immediate group without a ‘gatekeeper’ is significant in and of itself.

      1. Whilst I agree that the absence of a gatekeeper has a significance, it is perhaps more relevant that said gatekeeper has been replaced with an automatically targeted fire hose. This spews out huge volumes of not so much fire retardant as combustible (incendiary?) material.

  9. With Zuckerberg and Dorsey gatekeeping their ethereal publishing empires in exchange for monetisation of content, it is easy to see how the silos thrive. The adage that there is far more that unites us is long forgotten.

  10. I should of course also have commented on the Marconi scandal of 1912. As the British government was about to announce a major contract with the British Marconi company, three senior ministers – the chief whip, the chancellor of the Exchequer and – ahem – the Attorney General bought shares in the American Marconi company. A colossal storm broke. The prime Minister, Asquith, coached his naughty colleagues in what they should say before the inevitable select committee.

    There was in due course a re-shuffle – the Attorney General was made Lord Chief Justice, provoking a memorable poem by Kipling:

    Well done; well done, Gehazi!
    Stretch forth thy ready hand,
    Thou barely ‘scaped from judgment,
    Take oath to judge the land
    Unswayed by gift of money
    Or privy bribe, more base,
    Of knowledge which is profit
    In any market-place.

    The miscreants engaged the two leading Conservative advocates – Carson and F E Smith – to fight libel actions, thus preventing them from leading the inquisition in the Commons. The two Conservatives pleaded the cab rank principle required them to accept these briefs.

    The instructions were given following an inaccurate account of events appearing in the French paper, Le Matin. It was of course extremely convenient for the miscreants to be able to claim against a foreign paper that was entirely willing to settle rapidly. It was of course pure coincidence that Rufus Isaacs, the Attorney General, had been in Paris a few days before Le Matin managed to publish an erroneous story.

    This provoked a piece of verse by G K Chesterton:

    I am so swift to seize affronts,
    My spirit is so high,
    Whoever has insulted me
    Some foreigner must die.

    I brought a libel action,
    For the Times had called me “thief,”
    Against a paper in Bordeaux,
    A paper called _Le Juif_.

    _The Nation_ called me “cannibal”
    I could not let it pass–
    I got a retractation
    From a journal in Alsace.

    And when _The Morning Post_ raked up
    Some murders I’d devised,
    A Polish organ of finance
    At once apologised.

    I know the charges varied much;
    At times, I am afraid
    _The Frankfurt Frank_ withdrew a charge
    The _Outlook_ had not made.

    And what the true injustice
    Of the _Standard’s_ words had been,
    Was not correctly altered
    In the _Young Turk’s Magazine_.

    I know it sounds confusing–
    But as Mr. Lammle said,
    The anger of a gentleman
    Is boiling in my head.

  11. There are two separate issues for me in this piece. The second is that political “leaders” such as Trump and Johnson, have little to fear from the law whilst in office (you may add Sarcocy and Nettenyahu to the list) since the function of bringing them to book seems not to exist: Johnson’s plain contempt of the High Court went inchallenged; Trump’s impeachment was always going to fail since he held a Senate majority. It is to be hoped that the law will catch up with both, in due course, but it would be much healthier for democracy if such excesses could be dealt with in “real time”.

    The first point, which is less important, is that whilst the gatekeepers have indeed now gone, “your voice” is only heard if you have a platform – think of Marcus Rashford. No matter how articulate, passionate or well-argued the case is, it would never have had “the oxygen of publicity” had he not be a celebrated football player. Indeed the “Have your say” vogue of the internet does very little to get an individual’s views to a wider audience, let alone trigger action in the real world. It is rather like encouraging somebody to howl into the teeth of a hurricane -it may make them feel better for venting their spleen, but it is highly unlikely to be a cry heardby many.

    1. There is a forum in which an individual may make an articulate, passionate and well-argued voice heard within an audience of (mostly) intelligent and well-informed peers – it is the comment section of the FT (where DAG is also a “contributing editor”). It is not infrequent that the comments are more illuminating than the original article. However, no matter how many recommends one’s FT comment may receive, your are correct in that it is unlikely to “trigger action in the real world”. More’s the pity. Nevertheless, we should be grateful for Marcus Rashford.

  12. Yes, so far as I can remember, let’s say in living memory, the recent departure of senior civil servants in the manner they have left is unprecedented – but having a Prime Minister who is impervious to shame is also unprecedented. What is especially depressing is that Johnson’s character flaws were known and understood before he was elected leader of the Conservative Party and the MPs still put him forward.

    Johnson’s rise has been more from mistakes by people who should have realised better what a risk they were taking by promoting him rather than the existence of the internet. Cameron putting Johnson forward for Mayor of London in retrospect was a disastrous error. Corbyn becoming Labour leader was another. Mrs May not sacking Johnson early on for disloyalty, and so on.

    The key point to rebuild standards will have to be the demonstration that “crime doesn’t pay”, that having a lying shyster as a leader is bad news. Unfortunately to re-learn that lesson has has already cost this country dearly, and there is a lot more pain to come.

  13. A lot of interesting comments have already been made. I would add that the American academic Neil Postman predicted precisely the political circumstances we now found ourselves experiencing, most particularly in his brilliant book ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death: political discourse in the age of show business’ (1984). What TV began, the internet has continued and made far worse. So I would contend that it is less about the lack of gatekeepers and more that the public has become cognitively disassociated from the truth – from caring whether anything is true or untrue; all that matters is its entertainment value. And so we get Trump and we get Johnson and Brexit and heaven knows what else.

    1. Everyone on here and a great many more are also the public. Half of us in the UK voted against Brexit and more than half in the US voted for Biden. People do still care about the truth.

      However, I totally take your point – – – unfortunately!

  14. Is it not the case that conventions work because they are trusted to work?
    Therefore if they break down because that trust is abused, then that is an abuse of that trust.
    That trust is the public’s trust, and it is a crime at common law for the holder of a public office to abuse that trust.
    The offence is called “Misconduct in Public Office” and it is reasonably well established.

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