Cameron's attack on Facebook was part of his nudge strategy
By Paul Goodman
Chris Heaton-Harris, the new MP for Daventry, suggested at yesterday's Prime Minister's Questions that Facebook should take down a horrible page extolling the murderer Raoul Moat. David Cameron agreed, saying that his colleague had made a "very good point". This morning, a great deal's being written about issues arising from the exchange, but not much about how it came to happen.
I expect that the question didn't catch the Prime Minister off his guard. In Opposition, "the usual channels" would have questions to suggest, each week, to those who had a question down on the order paper for PMQs, but hadn't decided what to ask. Needless to say, they also took an interest in questions that MPs had decided to ask: Whips like to be well-informed. It would be surprising if Government has changed their habits.
Heaton-Harris, a football-playing Euro-sceptic, knows own mind, and wouldn't put a view he didn't believe, but the question clearly gave Cameron a chance to do something he's done before - namely, to nudge. He was nudging when he attacked British Home Stores for allowing the sale of padded bras for children. He was nudging again when he assailed W.H.Smith for giving away chocolate oranges rather than real ones.
And he was nudging yet again when he said that he'd barred his young daughter, Nancy, from listening to Lily Allen, because some of her lyrics are "unsuitable" for six year olds. The Prime Minister's prepared to legislate when he considers it appropriate (he said in Opposition, for example, that he'd blacklist firms if necessary from Government contracts, although I can't find the proposal, and others he floated, in the Coalition Agreement.)
But the point about nudging is that it relies to some degree on persuasion and example to change things - rather than simply depend on laws, rules and regulations. Cameron's made it clear that he's prepared to use the despatch box as a bully pulpit to try to shift social attitudes. And so it came about that Facebook yesterday joined British Home Stores, W.H.Smith, and Lily Allen in the Prime Minister's Hall of Shame.
Some will hold that politicians shouldn't moralise. This view has a simple appeal, but is less straightforward than it sounds. To hold that taxes should be cut, for example, is ultimately to take a view from which morality isn't easily separable: it's simply wrong for them to be too high, many tax-cutters will say. So the Prime Minister was right, for example, to voice the view that it offends our instincts to see young children sexualised.
The Facebook case is harder. Yes, some will say: for Facebook to remove the offending Moat page would be an affront to free speech. What is it, they'll ask, about Tory MPs and moats? No, others will counter: people should be free to say whatever they like about Moat, but Facebook's under no compulsion to give them a platform.
Perhaps the key point is practicability. If Facebook removed the Moat page, how many other objectionable pages would they remove - and on what basis? Or maybe it's that Prime Ministers can use Downing Street as a platform for as long as their popularity lasts, but that won't be for long - and afterwards, they'll find it hard going to change public attitudes. Nudge nudge, wink wink: but the longer Cameron's in office, the less of both we're likely to get from him.