Backlash as Suella Braverman says sleeping rough is ‘a lifestyle choice’ – What does this mean for media regulation?

British Government building view
Hope Gallagher

Suella Braverman, the now former British Home Secretary, in an X-post, where she called for new measures and restrictions on the number of tents for the homeless nationally across the UK. Her comments also included legislation barring charities from providing extra tents to the homeless, stating that they were causing a nuisance and problems for the UK and that the UK would descend into lawlessness if more tents were provided to homeless people. This led to backlash across the UK, and in this article, Hope Gallagher covers how the post by Suella Braverman impacted the media, media regulation, and the lives of homeless people across the UK. 

The recent stir came after Braverman’s controversial X-post, in which she suggested some are living on the streets as a ‘lifestyle choice’ and, in a later interview, doubled down on this by suggesting there are people who are ‘genuinely homeless’, but those who are not are ruining cities with tents and causing big problems for British cities.

In her interview with Sky News, Braverman spoke of how tents filling the high streets were unnecessary as there are places for homeless people to go. The then-home secretary told reporters an excess of tents on the roads ‘brings criminality, it brings drug use, it brings in many instances violence to communities’. This is part of Braverman’s policy to reduce the number of street tents.

Many who had experiences of homelessness share their stories on social media platforms, condemning the idea that this was a lifestyle choice and instead highlighting the challenges and the circumstances which forced these people into homelessness.

Charities and MPs also chimed into the conversation to share their views on the controversial comments, with Health Secretary Steve Barclay refusing to back the comments. Charities claimed the homelessness crisis was instead due to government failings, particularly in the time of a cost-of-living crisis. In addition, 10 Downing Street stated on the 7th of November that the proposal would not be included in the Criminal Justice Bill, because the controversial proposal was ‘undergoing scrutiny’.

These comments also came just days before Braverman published a controversial article for The Times in which she criticised police for being more lenient towards left-wing protesters. The Downing Street Press office did not clear these comments; however, Sky News suggests that this was not the reason for her eventual sacking but the controversial homelessness comments that eventually caused her to be sacked.

Under the ministerial code, ministers are bound by collective responsibility. This means ministers should only agree with government policies. This means that if Braverman disagreed with the Government’s position on homelessness or how the police were acting or thought their stance was not radical enough, then she could feel these things but must still publicly agree and support the government. They can privately disagree, but once the government has taken a position, then Ministers will have to agree.

This outburst from Braverman leads us to question if the Government codes are enough. We know the ministerial code applies, but is this regulation sufficient to monitor the language politicians use? Are there dangerous consequences of censoring what politicians say on their social media, or does it ensure that government scandals are reduced?

Whilst social media is a quick and easy way for politicians to ensure that their messages reach the electorate, that may be the problem. It is so easy for anyone, including politicians, to tweet a message of anything on their mind and articulate how they feel. However, there are consequences to this. When the energy secretary was asked if he thought Braverman misspoke, he said he believed the home secretary was talking about many things by acknowledging those in need and those who beg nuisance.

Despite this, government officials are expected to be transparent in their messaging, as this can offend many people, causing a backlash against the politician and the government. Maintaining professionalism is necessary in their lives; this is not something as small as a spelling mistake on your Instagram caption; there are ethical standards when it comes to communicating government policy, which affects millions on social media.

This piece is not an argument against freedom of speech. It is a valid concern that strict regulations can impact politicians’ rights to the freedom of speech. However, there is a critical balance between censorship, maintaining accountability and ensuring officials express opinions accurately. Though it may be interesting to know Braverman’s personal opinion on the matter, it is not the government’s position that she must be promoted to a cabinet member.

Perhaps if statements such as these came from a backbencher, who is freer to give their opinion on government policy and criticise the government’s actions, such regulations do not need to be so strict. However, within the bounds of the ministerial code, that is how Braverman should have conducted herself. Whether the ministerial code is correct is another debate entirely.

Rather than regulation of language, perhaps these tweets need oversight before they are sent out. An oversight body or some mechanism within government agencies already exists to ensure officials can communicate that message without such unintended consequences. In the same way, people use grammar checking in their coursework to ensure their meaning is clear and their message is communicated in a way that is proper and correct.

Politicians should be provided with clear guidelines and training in this growing digital age. This should be made available to politicians at any level to ensure they responsibly use their highly influential platforms. Politicians must understand the consequences of having such a following on all platforms. If politicians are so sufficiently media trained to avoid questions and ensure they always say the right thing at the right time, the same training should be implicated so that when the time to press send on that tweet comes, there is a clear understanding of the message they wish to send out. It will be in line with Government policy.

Hope Gallagher


Featured image courtesy of Shane Rounce on Unsplash, Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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