This is what happens when journalists lower their standards #mpsexpenses

by Stephen Tall on May 23, 2009

A week ago, I wrote an article attacking the Telegraph’s coverage of the MPs’ expenses row under the deliberately provocative headline, What has the Telegraph done for the reputation of journalism? Amidst all the outrageous abuses by MPs that the newspaper has reported, I said, it’s also been guilty of some shoddy reporting, giving equal prominence to stories which simply do not stand up to scrutiny, and deliberately omitting facts which do not fit with its headline allegations.

The main point of the article, though, was to challenge how the rest of the news media was responding to the Telegraph’s stories – ie, simply copying ‘n’ pasting the Telegraph’s accusations, often minus the defences of those named, and frequently in more extravagant language to make up for the fact that the Telegraph was there first.

The last week has emphasised the trend, and reached its nadir yesterday with the disgraceful coverage of Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson’s expenses claims. Lib Dem blogger James Graham has deconstructed the tawdry, sexist way in which the Telegraph covered the story here, commenting in trademark style:

Jo has of course rebutted all this, but that hasn’t prevented other media outlets from reporting it as fact, including the BBC (the cost of Jo’s makeup might not come out of your pocket, but the cost of repeating bullshit claims about her most certainly does – they can’t even be bothered to get her photo right) and the Guardian (in print but again, not online – funny how newpapers are afraid to put their misogynist crap on the web for all to see).

After a fortnight, this story has mutated from one about ministers playing the housing market at taxpayer expense to barefaced sexist lies being spread about one of the Commons’ champions of reform and transparency. Yes, the Telegraph have done democracy a service by breaking this story but never forget that they ultimately represent the forces of darkness.

Those LDV readers who have also been amazed/annoyed/frustrated by the media’s delight in peddling half-truths dressed up in 1970s-style sexism should read James’s follow-up post, in which he tells you exactly how you can complain to the Telegraph, the BBC and The Guardian for their shameful reporting.

There are those, many Lib Dems among them, who claim the Telegraph has undertaken a great ‘public service’ by publishing its stories on MPs’ expenses. That is nonsense. The Telegraph has been motivated by little more than its own commercial interest, and to expect any more of it is naive. If the Telegraph truly were selflessly interested in ‘public service’ it would not have kept a tight monopoly of the evidence, preventing validation of its claims by other media. Nor would it have reported MPs’ claims which appear fraudulent and/or exorbitant side-by-side with minor administrative errors and wholly legitimate claims.

It is precisely the muddled way in which the Telegraph has reported this story which might ultimately prevent the interests of the public from being served. By lumping in all MPs together, in a cynical attempt to feed the ‘they’re all at it’ cliché, the Telegraph has made it that much easier for the genuine villains to be obscured from view. And by doing so they have lowered the journalistic bar, enabling supposedly responsible outlets like the BBC and the Guardian to feel justified in blithely distorting the truth.

Yes, the reputation of MPs is in tatters; in many cases deservedly so. But at a cost to the integrity of many news journalists, it seems, with the accuracy of the story taking second place to the sexiness of the story.