What has the Telegraph done for the reputation of journalism?

by Stephen Tall on May 16, 2009

If there’s an advantage that comes from not being either a current MP, nor an aspirant MP, it is at least that I can ask a question like this without being lynched by the baying mob.

And I’m not going to delve in here to the issue of ‘cheque-book journalism’ – everyone will have their own views about when it’s justified and when not. My personal view is that, though the issue of MPs’ expenses is very clearly in the public interest, for the Telegraph to have paid a source some £100,000 for seemingly stolen information which includes personal and private data of MPs, their families and their staff is seriously dodgy behaviour, given all the expenses details they’re covering were to be published shortly anyway.

But back to my central question: what has this past week’s Telegraph revelations done for the reputation of journalism? Because amidst the appalling abuses, genuine scandals and likely frauds that our MPs have committed with our money, the Telegraph has also been guilty of flaky fact-checking, unfair distortions and disgraceful smears.

Inevitably on Lib Dem Voice we’ve been primarily pre-occupied with those allegations relating to our party’s MPs – in at least two cases, Andrew George and Alan Reid, we firmly believe the Telegraph should be printing prominent apologies for what were unjustified slurs.

As a result, my first instinct now, when I hear of the latest MP of whichever party to be ‘named and shamed’, is “I wonder if the Telegraph’s got its facts right this time?” Too many of their expenses stories have failed to stand up to even the most basic scrutiny that I find it hard to take any at face value. (And I won’t reprise here the Telegraph’s woeful failure to report a major story, ‘Smeargate’, when it was right under its nose, instead choosing to copy ‘n’ paste a Number 10 spin operation.)

What’s worse, though, is that the Telegraph allegations have been uncritically repeated, sometimes with further unproven exaggerations, by other news media – print and broadcast – scared to be caught behind the curve, and fearful that any attempt to question the Telegraph’s reporting competence will come across as defending ‘these scrounging MPs’.

Has the BBC, has ITN or Sky, has any of the quality press spent any time critically examining the Telegraph’s allegations, using their own reporters’ expertise to judge which are fair and accurate, and which have been ‘lumped-in’ for the sake of a headline? No, of course not – they’ve all been too busy piling in, lambasting every MP mentioned, upping the ante still further to prove they’re in touch with voters’ anger.

Journalists have, it seems, forgotten how to challenge assumptions. Instead of asking, ‘Are these allegations true, where’s the evidence?’, they’re obsessed with re-iterating this week’s fatuous vox pop meme, ‘Tell me how disgusted you are with all MPs, and how you’ve lost faith in Parliamentary democracy, and that we should get rid of the lot of ’em and “just start again” (whatever the hell that means)’.

Caught up as we are in the maelstrom of the past week’s revelations, it’s impossible yet to discern the long-term impact on politics of the Telegraph’s stories.

Perhaps we’ll come to look back and view it as a form of ‘Diana week’ madness, in which truth and cool rational analysis were brushed to one side in favour of an emotional bloodrush of anger. Or perhaps it really is the start of some form of anti-politics revolution.

More likely, the anger will subside but the impression that MPs and the current political system are rotten will endure, with a disengaged, passive-aggressive electorate – egged on by supine journalists – resentfully observing it all from the sidelines.

What it certainly shows is the danger of just one news outlet being able to command the monopoly of a story. The concepts of natural justice and due process have not just been ignored this week: they’ve been turned on their heads. ‘Guilty until proven innocent’, ‘no smoke without fire’, ‘they’re all as bad as each other’ – such statements have tripped lightly from the lips of even the most intelligent commentators this week. It’s a depressing sight.

To be sure, our MPs have brought this on themselves, both through their sometimes crass and bloated claims, and by the repeated refusal of Labour and Tory MPs to reform the expenses system. But that does not excuse the ugly and OTT response of the Telegraph and other news media this past week.

If (as seems to be the prevailing view) we really are better than our MPs, isn’t it about time we started proving it? That means allowing more than just Telegraph journalists to see the evidence; giving those accused time to defend their actions; and ensuring any appropriate disciplinary action is based on proven fact, not hyperbolic headlines.

Part of being a liberal is about championing minority causes: this week’s seem to be natural justice and responsible journalism.