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.

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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.

I half agree, but am very aware that if the disc hadn’t been bought by a paper, we might have waited 2-3 more years before the Commons authorities would have eventually capitulated.

In terms of ensuring this issue had been covered fairly, the best recourse of action would have been for the Speaker to have immediately cooperated with the FOI requests instead of fighting them.

So however twisted the Telegraph might have got it, Martin got it far worse.

by James Graham on May 23, 2009 at 3:55 pm. Reply #

The way Jo Swinson was treated by the Telegraph was outrageous but I’m afraid there’s plenty of what you deem ‘1970s style sexism’ in the Lib Dems as well.

by Ruth Bright on May 23, 2009 at 4:13 pm. Reply #

I’m not saying the Telegraph wasn’t justified in its actions (though there is a separate issue about the access they now have to MPs’ staff and families’ private data which liberals have, I think, been far too quiet about).

What I am saying is it wasn’t ‘public service’; it was the Telegraph’s commercial interest which drove this story.

‘Public service’ would have meant the Telegraph allowed other media access to the evidence they have; commercial interest meant that they didn’t, and has resulted in a lot of distortion alongside the genuine scandal.

I agree entirely with you about the role of the Speaker.

by Stephen Tall on May 23, 2009 at 4:16 pm. Reply #

the repackaging of the ‘story’ of Jo Swinson’s expenses is symptomatic of a wider malaise in the media. I thoroughly recommend this article by John Lanchester in the LRB reviewing Nick Davies’ excellent book ‘Flat Earth News’, which covers the subject in depth:

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n05/lanc01_.html

by carrion on May 23, 2009 at 4:35 pm. Reply #

Ruth Bright, are you a Telegraph journalist, perhaps?

Because you’ve just thrown out an accusation without any attempt to back it up with facts, basically saying “you’re all as bad as each other”.

Which is exactly what this article is saying that the Telegraph is doing.

by Richard Flowers on May 23, 2009 at 4:56 pm. Reply #

Richard I have been a party member for 24 years, was a councillor for eight and a PPC in the last election who had to fight, fight and fight again for maternity leave. A fight I would not have had to go through in most other organisations.

As a PPC I attended a branch meeting where the former PPC thought it was OK to compare the breast size of two Lib Dem councillors.

When I came back 6 weeks after my first baby was born (she nearly died of meningitis as a newborn) I was greeted at the same branch with snide comments about how long I had been away.

When I was seven months pregnant with my second baby (and hoping there might in the future be a mature attitude towards a PPC breastfeeding at meetings) I attended a Lib Dem group meeting where one councillor said that a member of the Tory group was “a cow and needed to be milked”. There also followed a discussion about the visible panty line of another Tory councillor and whether she wore a thong or not.

When I have raised issues around breastfeeding or maternity leave on LDV ther has usually been a sniggering reaction about the former and one of indifference or outrage about the latter (how can PPCs desert their post etc etc.)

by Ruth Bright on May 23, 2009 at 5:49 pm. Reply #

Richard, I have to agree with Ruth. A party member for 25 years and a councillor for 13 (having been elected whilst pregnant with our daughter) I have seen so much sexism in politics, including inside out own party.

I won’t detail it, because much of it identifies others. But unfortunately it is there all the same. And sadly, a lot of it comes from other women (the Thatcher effect).

by Sara on May 23, 2009 at 5:56 pm. Reply #

Can’t comment on your horrendous-sounding experiences with local parties, Ruth, but do you have any rough dates and/or links for the LDV comments you mention? I’d be very surprised if it was anything other than passing trolls making objectionable comments (it’s an open site, as you know), but am prepared to be corrected.

by Alix on May 23, 2009 at 6:01 pm. Reply #

Having said that, while I’m all for breastfeeding being accepted as part of normal visible human life in general, I’m not sure I’d feel particularly entitled to breastfeed at a meeting without being challenged on it. Surely it falls into a category of “personal” and is inappropriate to a professional setting. I.e. I wouldn’t sit in a meeting doing my make-up either.

by Alix on May 23, 2009 at 6:04 pm. Reply #

Alix

I am a great fan of yours (sorry, probably kiss of death for you!). Your writing on the expenses’ scandal has been
consistent, witty and fair.

Re your last point the NHS advises women to breastfeed for six months as their baby’s only food and then for at least another eighteen months. With my second baby I was his only source of food for four months and therefore if my local party had wanted me back during that period they would have had to accept a breastfeeding PPC!

Re the earlier comments. I raised the maternity leave issue some months ago (I think in the context of the Spanish Defence Minister’s maternity leave). The overwhelming response was that PPCs could not reasonably expect anything akin to statutory maternity leave – I recall Lord Greaves posting that I was not living in the real world and that PPCs could not be allowed to “disappear” for six months.

I made some remark about breastfeeding during Question Time ages ago and the response was a bit trolly as I recall!

by Ruth Bright on May 23, 2009 at 6:28 pm. Reply #

Alix I’m not sure I woudl agree with that. You get a choice abotu when to do make up but not when to feed a baby! Baby gets hungry =baby wants milk.

by Ali Goldsworthy on May 23, 2009 at 6:30 pm. Reply #

Alix – I recall the thread Ruth is talking about though I can’t point you to where it is.

IIRC a lot of the comments about maternity leave for PPCs were AIRC based on the idea (which may have been a wilful misunderstanding) of it being on a similar basis to the legal entitlement (ie complete break, 9+ months) which I don’t see as being workable) rather than what I think Ruth was referring to (several weeks, reduced commitments etc). IIRC she didn’t set out the details of what she meant (though I may have missed them)

The discussion was also a reflection of the way the party regards PPCs – ie must do everything and be everywhere all the time.

None of which is to excuse the behaviour Ruth relates which really is no way to treat a volunteer (which is what a PPC ultimately is)

by Hywel on May 23, 2009 at 6:47 pm. Reply #

Oh, surely the baby can just wait patiently for an hour or two?

Thanks, Ruth 🙂 I wouldn’t necessarily wish to defend everything specific that comes out of the redoubtable Lord G. But there are surely genuine problems with the set-up of politics vis-a-vis the demands of motherhood, and it’s not misogynistic to point that out.

The trouble is, I guess, men (and, for that matter, women without young children) will always be able to devote more time to something than a woman with young children (though that shouldn’t be assumed, if the woman in question has a clear plan in mind as to how to avoid it).

And the devotion of more time will invariably lead to their doing a better job in the case of PPCs. That many more doors knocked on, that many more times. It’s just a fact. I don’t know how we get around that. It’s slightly different from a regular job, in that there is a clear time limit (the next election, whenever that falls) and a clear goal (ultimately gaining the seat). It’s therefore easier for people to measure the difference a period like six months make to the party’s progress. And measure it they will.

by Alix on May 23, 2009 at 6:56 pm. Reply #

“Oh, surely the baby can just wait patiently for an hour or two?”

Sorry, that should have had a 😉 after it. Obviously.

by Alix on May 23, 2009 at 7:10 pm. Reply #

You could also apply this to Alan Reid (i.e not the breast-feeding that is, the raw deal from the Telegraph – and I know LDV highlighted this). And Andrew Brown – the poor man had his photo in large on the front of the Telegraph at the start of this “expenses” coverage and his arrangement with Gordon Brown about cleaners was entirely proper and above board, supported by detailed contracts and receipts. What the Telegraph did with him (and also Gordon Brown on the subject of cleaning) was utterly repulsive.

by Paul Walter on May 23, 2009 at 7:32 pm. Reply #

Given that it would have taken another two years, it seems to me that – whatever its motivations – the Telegraph has done us a public service. At very least some MPs “on the make and on the take” will not be MPs for much longer. I almost, but only almost, feel like buying the Telegraph for once…

by tim leunig on May 23, 2009 at 9:27 pm. Reply #

Alix, IU am a woman with a not-so-young now child (12 years old), but who still needs looking after.

I have been a councillor and the major activist in the area since before my daughter was born. Haviong more time doesn’t equate to spending more time. Maybe we should insist all PPCs give up their paid employment – that takes up as much time as a child?

The chamges that need to be made can be quite small. For instance, when H was small, I could meet before her bedtime, or after she was settled and Dad or babysitter could take over. So having a meeting that started at six o’clock was almost impossible. Was it so difficult to start at seven, or finish by six?

Also, when you have a school age child, you are looking after them in the school holidays. So running target seat selections that start in the fourth week of July are difficult for parents. Could they really not be a different time of year?

It only takes a little thought – some people do it and others just won’t.

by Sara on May 24, 2009 at 5:57 pm. Reply #

To come back to the original article – well done Stephen. It’s good to see someone has sense and perspective about all this. The standard of journalism in the UK has fallen very low, and been so for many years. It’s a pity that our own party has sought to capitalise on the story for advantage without trying to correct the journalistic bias. Yes, some MPs have made what seem to be fraudulent claims, and should therefore be investigated by the police. The vast majority have used an allowances system to augment their salary – a temptation most of the public would themselves fall prey to. A few MPs have refused to play the system and should be congratulated.

By the way – how many people know the difference between allowances and expenses? Not journalists it seems.

Rather than call for an elected upper house, replacing the one defence of civil liberties we have had in the last few years – can we not mount a campaign for a more responsible journalism. It find it hard to enjoy the sight of MPs of any party being hounded from office by an unelected media. That is far more corrosive of democracy than any House of Lords.

Donald Smith
York Central Liberal Democrats

by Donald Smith on May 29, 2009 at 1:57 pm. Reply #

An unelected media?

The reason that this story has legs is because people read about it and decided it was bad. People are quite capable of reading a story and saying “so what”.

It is frustrating that whenever politics do bad things the media gets attacked.

It happened in the Watergate situation and in the Thatcher government.

Is it so hard to admit that politicians are human and make mistakes?

by Voter on May 29, 2009 at 2:12 pm. Reply #

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