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was to call in the police to investigate wrongdoing and to attempt to change the rules by ensuring the expenses will not be published in future.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.

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