Telegraph tactics on MP expenses enhance democracy

May 11, 2009

john_kampfner- John Kampfner is chief executive of Index on Censorship and former editor of the New Statesman. His new book, “Freedom for Sale”, will be published by Simon and Schuster in September. The opinions expressed are his own. -

Squalid is the adjective that best describes the approach of our not-so-honourable members of parliament to their own expenses. But what about the journalism that has helped to all but destroy what remaining trust the public had in its elected representatives?

Some legitimate questions have been raised about the tactics deployed by the Daily Telegraph in buying in the information, apparently a CD from a mole inside parliament which had been touted around newspapers for months.

Cheque-book journalism is a time-honoured tactic of British newspapers, often revealing tawdry stories about celebrities that have little to do with free expression and more to do with prying into people’s private lives.

But in this instance, the Telegraph has surely acted in the public interest. Indeed, all the facts surrounding the case suggest that the newspaper has – far from undermining our democracy – helped to enhance it.

MPs, it should be remembered, fought tooth and nail to try to exempt themselves and the details of their 88-pence bath plugs and black glittered toilet seats from the public gaze. When they forced to publish the information, they sought to time the release to coincide with the summer holidays. Then, instead of dealing with the issues in hand, the stock response of some parliamentary authorities was to call in the police to investigate wrongdoing and to attempt to change the rules by ensuring the expenses will not be published in future.

My critique of the British press is somewhat different to former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s who, in one of his valedictory speeches as prime minister, described the British media as “feral”. Certainly there are many valid concerns around standards, around accountability (journalists’ expenses chits would also make for amusing reading), and around attention spans in the 24-hour news culture.
But by far the worst trait of the modern-day profession is a lack of fearless investigation.

One former reporter turned government press officer once told me how shocked he was, when moving across into the state sector, how little the public actually knew about what was being done in their name. Editors are frightened by the UK’s draconian libel laws; they are concerned about their day-to-day budgets, and they are interested mainly in “quick hits” rather than difficult holding the powerful to account.

And what of the media’s purported role as an “advocate of democracy”? I have heard this one thrown around in recent days. This school of thought argues that journalism has a “responsibility” to “promote” our democratic norms.

No it does not. It must act professionally, but one of its main preoccupations should be putting into the public domain information that the authorities would rather people do not know. It is then for readers or viewers to draw their own conclusions about the quality of our public representatives. Respect is not an entitlement. It is a reward for principle, duty – and good behaviour.

Comments

Can we now move onto Euro MPs. This would be far more interesting than claims for water taps, dog food and washing powder. This really might make heads turn and questions might get very awkward. Not to underplay that integrity is important at any level but the discrepancies need to be seen relative to counterparts in other countries and in the EU for a start. This should include unelected bureaucrats – this reminds me when will there be a freedom of information act covering the whole of the EU.

Posted by david | Report as abusive
 

Surely all they’ve actually done is prove how easy it is to make mistakes in going through these accounts? Their assumption that every item on a till receipt submitted in support of a claim actually forms part of the claim is a schoolboy howler of the worst kind. Or maybe it just reflects the reality of how journalists submit expenses claims!

And the hoity-toity “I never discuss sources and I’m sure you as a journalist appreciate that” from their editors in every interview – doesn’t that just reveal that they suffer from the selfsame affliction of which they’re accusing politicians, that the rules by which the general public lives don’t apply to them?

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive
 

While it might have been wrong of the Telegraph to pay for such information, you would have thought that someone with access would have had enough back bone to send it. The whole idea of leaking information is to embarrass the government into sorting something out that is going wrong. Now in this case it is the entire parliament, which is all the more reason to suggest that our democracy is going down the swaney.

However, I have little understanding why anyone is so worried about the telegraph getting the info NOW. It would have come out in July anyway. All its done is given the public anger before the elections coming up. It shall be interesting to see what happens on the 4th June…

Posted by Elliot Black | Report as abusive
 

I havent voted for years. Why, well by voting im only endorsing the party’s choice. Seeing as around only 30% vote anyway it shows the majority are passive to letting the pigs being greedy as it keeps a sort of peacful democracy. Long gone has any sttandard of accountability and these days it reminds me of why Cromwell went after Charles, its just a repeat in reverse except the Telegrpah newspaper is a sort of Cromwell. It would be really great if we had a sea change in politics and the LIb Dems got in or something that made the Conservative Left part and conservative Right party sit up and actually fight to give their voters something. Nieve I know, but it might stop things like the government taking 20 year pension holidays in relation to the post office and then claimning its insolvant whilst bailing banks out with billions. Howcan we reverse the rot!!!

Posted by Brin | Report as abusive
 

Fair play to the journos in this case and of course, shame on the politicians. At the end of the day, those in the higher echelons of life everywhere in the world have always benefited from a kind of protection afforded them by the state. It is only the tenacity of the UK press in exposing their wrondoings that will ever draw the lower and higher classes closer together. When MPs are milking the public purse it is great that they are exposed. They are worse than thieves as they are already very wealthy individuals and are abusing their position. Surely in China they would be executed for such blatant abuses of power. The attempts at thwarting the inevitable release of this information has been quite comical, there’s nothing quite like seeing so many pampered politicians squirming simultaneously en masse!

Posted by Roger | Report as abusive
 

One question I have, is if I submitted an expense claim outside the rules, I would have expected to face serious diciplinary consequences or even termination of contract in the real (commercial) world. I know many of the MP’s say they were operating within the rules, but was avoiding paying capital gains on you second propery within the rules? Where the rules allowing MP’s to flip from one property to another (as main residence), then sell one claiming it was your first and continue to speculate ..so tax was never paid? I take my hat off to Cameron for making his MP’s get their cheque books out, but its hardly any pain or consequnce for them. The UK is infamous for making it look like real action has been taken when all they really have done is invented antother type of expenses game! By the way, on the point of daily allowances, Local Councillors have been claiming attendance allowances for years. I know many a councillor says “I’m sorry I can only stay for the first 10 minutes of this committee or meeting”…claim your allowance …Kerching! All this stuff about retaining the best is also guff..you basically get invited to be an MP..lets get real..otherwise we would all have a go at it..what do they say,,westiminster, the best club in London? Please, please change if you can still remeber how to!

Posted by Brin | Report as abusive
 

This is sheer fraud and theft by those elected in trust.

Our money should be going towards bettering public services and the country in general. Yes, ok, we are happy to pay salaries (after all we elect them to do a job), and perhaps expenses within reason. What I mean by this is overnight hotel accommodation if it is unreasonable to expect them to travel (by this I mean more than a 2 hour commute seeing as many of us ‘workers’ are subjected to that). However, subsidising restaurants, food, paying mortgages, redecoration (etc) is purely and simply beyond the scope of what is necessary to do the job. It is obvious that politicians have been using our money to line their pockets and their lifestyles and not putting our money towards what it is supposed to be going towards and that is OUR COUNTRY!

I am appalled and disgusted that they still try to excuse themselves as “working within the rules”. What about morals and ‘doing the right thing’? We elect them in trust to do the right thing – pure and simple. That trust has been bludgeoned and to be quite frank can we be sure that it will ever return? I think not – well, not unless there is a complete overhaul of Parliament and the expense criteria which would transcend the current dismall system into a one which is completely and utterly transparent in its entirety.

To be quite frank, what disgusts me even more – and yes this is a harsh word but, to be honest, not harsh enough – is that millions of people in this country have lost their jobs and homes because of the incompetence of governments across the board and yet, another fatal blow is put to them: their own government has been stealing from them.

Just imagine that – no home, no job, no savings and where did all their hard earned cash go? To serve, feed and accommodate those we trusted – not just to provide them what is necessary to do the job but to allow them to live like kings whilst the unfortunate workers have had to resort to living in bedsits with no income!

It is appalling – yes appalling – how politicians in dire times like these can soak up our tax payments to better their own lifestyles and live in riches when the whole country is falling apart. Well, when our tax money has payed for 2nd and 3rd homes, redecorating, plasma TVs, swimming pools, moats and good knows what else – let’s not forget horse manure – then no wonder this country is so much in debt!

Think about it? How many people live in this country? How many flats have been erected and are now filled? How many people live as ‘singles’ and not ‘couples’. Who encourages this? How much council tax is paid to government? Billions? More than Billions? Who encourages immigration and sets up immigrants with £80,000 to start a business? And why would government do this? To earn more back in taxes! Yet where does this vast amount of money go? Not to mention the money government makes from companies, bankruptcies etc (the list goes on and on and on). We’ll, it all (or 99%) of it should have gone back into the country – that’s where it should have gone and that’s where it should always go. That’s what it is there for!

The government has been clever. It’s been allowing us to blame unfortunate people using our benefit system (yes there are some benefit cheats but there are some very needing and deserving people too) but all the while long – they’ve been cheating the system far more grossly.

How very clever of government for letting us blame each other – it certainly serves its purpose – it conveniently diverts the attention from the biggest crooks and cheats of all!

It’s time that people got their voice and say back – enough silence!

Posted by tek15 | Report as abusive
 

As this has gone on, I have become more dissapointed. Do the Government really think that putting Michael Martin up as a ‘Scapegoat’ will really appease us?? Shame on those civil servants who advised Brown, he seems weak anyway. Also, have any of these MP’s been doubling claiming or triple claiming the same expenses from the additional jobs they have outside parliament?? Who can check. What I am really appauled at is these are the same people who ran down the pension fund of the post office workers, and tried to sell the post office because they cant handle the odd stike!! As a senior director, it doesent suprise me whats been going on in a way, but the extent of it is appauling. For me the integrity of everything MP’s do and the civil servants who advise them has gone. The public are’nt represented. As subjects we are ‘subject’ to their rules (unlike citizens in other european countries)and the whole thing is rank! So Michael Martins gone, are we that thick these days that we just accept this. The issue here is the press are they going to accept it or start looking at the other ethics & governance issues around MP’s? I dont want an election, I want a diffferent way, the queen should give up her consiiitutional role but stay head of state (we need her) but we dont need to be subjects in law. There should be a balance where people can choose and it shouldnt be all about increasing GDP, feeding the exchequer, or if you can’t tax it ban it. My biggest worry though is those who stay will want to seek their revenge. My message to the press is are you in for a penny(or £70k as alleged) in for a pound. Its time we had a wholesale change in a new set of elected reps, the way they are voted, the way law applies. Someone seriously needs to sort our the Civil Servants (isn’t this a Wheeze) machine that results in value added all the time but results in a poor bloke paying a fine because he said his car was off the road, but they found it 6 inches over, or treating sooldiers like muck (real people who stand the line with their lives). Im almost tempted to say ‘vive le France’, they have a better balance and they have had their Marie Antoinette moment the question is now are we!!!! If all this just go under the bridge like another heavy storm flood, I will loose all faith in politics and never vote again-not that I do anyway or most of us for that matter. Someone pop the bubble that they live in!!!! Go on make a difference!

Posted by Brin | Report as abusive
 

I am outraged at the sheer number and range of “mistakes” that all these MP’s have made.

Alastair Darling – now there’s someone who shouldn’t make a mistake in his paperwork – especially if he has hired an accountant/tax adviser to help him – which was charged to us, the taxpayers.
He reduces the interest rates and then tells us we must all be more prudent with our money, yet has “flipped” his principal place of residence how many times? I don’t suppose the he has to be too prudent.
I suspect if I made as many mistakes as these in my return, I would be held to be trying to commit a fraud.
I am also frustrated that we cannot eak out loudly enough against these people other than the local press and yourselves.
I looked on the Downing Street webite to email either Number 10 or Number 11. Guess what? There is no contact for number 11, for number 10 you can only email on a preset number of topics – curiously MP’s expenses is not amongst them.

Posted by Geoff Walker | Report as abusive
 
  •