Leaking in the public interest

May 14, 2009

nicholas-jonesNicholas Jones is the author of Trading Information: Leaks, Lies and Tip-offs (Politico’s, 2006). He is a member of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

Whatever reservations there might be over the way the leaked information was obtained, the publication of hitherto secret details about the endemic abuse of MPs’ expenses was without doubt in the public interest.

I have voiced my concerns in the past about cheque-book journalism and the practice of some newspapers in using dubious methods to influence the news agenda, but the Daily Telegraph deserves to be congratulated for seizing the moment and exposing the greed and double-standards of our elected representatives.

What strengthens the public interest justification for buying a purloined copy of the details being processed by the House of Commons fees office was the fact that MPs had collectively done all they could to try to thwart the release of the data.

Their attempt to frustrate the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act was a stain on Britain’s great democratic traditions and the sight now of MPs across the political spectrum tumbling over each other to pay back their ill gotten gains is proof if any were needed of the importance of investigative journalism.

As Police investigations are now in hand to identify the individual who was hawking the information around the offices of the national press, journalists face a dilemma. Should we stand by our colleagues at the Daily Telegraph who are adamant in their refusal to even discuss the source of the information? Or should we join the hue and cry which Speaker Michael Martin seems to favour in order to unmask the leaker who had the audacity to hold MPs to account?

My sense is that we should show some collective solidarity with the journalists of the Daily Telegraph. While there does seem to be every indication that money changed hands and that an individual or individuals have profited from these unprecedented disclosures, I think we should be cautious.

The last unseemly witch hunt by journalists against one of their own – the despicable Downing Street-backed operation to identify Andrew Gilligan’s source – ended with the tragic death of the weapons inspector Dr David Kelly, a salutary reminder perhaps of the need occasionally for journalists to let events take their course rather than turn in on themselves.


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is it planned to put the spotlight on local councillors expenses which to my mind also need to be brought into the open so we can see how our council taxes are influenced.

Posted by a.lucas | Report as abusive

Along with a great many millions of other tax payers, I am in full support of the Daily Telegraph in publishing the details of the politicians who have shown themselves to be unworthy of their parliamentary roles. And, in this case, cheque book journalism has served the public well.I would add that those politicians who have broken the law by de-frauding the public purse must be prosecuted for having done so. Just as the ordinary tax payer would be made to.

Posted by kate nichols | Report as abusive

I would also add that those politicians who have broken the law by de-frauding the public purse must be prosecuted for having done so.These politicians have DEFRAUDED the taxpayer.Back in the 60s I was paid just £4.00 per week and paid both N I and PAYE travelled by bicycle 10 miles to W H Smith and Son in Crawley Sussex on my feet all day from 8.30 am to 6.00 pm Monday to Saturday.So yes I join all underpaid overtaxed people in Britain to take out a private prosecution of these fraudsters.You can bet that as they have now been found out there will be many other frauds being perpetrated by these SELF ADMITTED CRIMINALS.WAKE UP BRITIAN YOU ARE BEING CONNED OVER AND OVER AGAIN.P S JUST RECEIVED A TAX REFUND TAX OFFICE NOW DEALING WITH THESE REFUNDS DATED AUGUST 2008My suggestion stop paying your taxes be paid in cash and into a Bermudan Bank account JUST LIKE BARCLAYS AND LLOYDS TSB.

Posted by George Lucas | Report as abusive

I along with most if not all taxpayers are not at all surprised that MPs from ALL parties have stolen the taxpayers money. They Admit that they have done so and should be dismissed IMMEDIATELY and put in gaol pending their trials for treason. Stealing money from the government is treason as it diminishes the country’s resources to fund important budget items legally constituted, by people legally elected to represent the taxpayers of Britain.

Posted by George Lucas | Report as abusive

Perhaps a fair sum of money could be generated for the exchequer if all historical fraudulent expenses were reclaimed – surely lack of historical publicity is no defence.And perhaps more of our taxes could be saved if banks were to reclaim historical bankers’ bonuses, that were paid apparently for incompetence, lack of foresight and arrogance…

Posted by Steve Windsor | Report as abusive

Kate Nichols, I largely agree with you about politicians who have broken the law being prosecuted. Except of course that as far as the law is concerned, no laws have been broken – rather bent which is unfortunately a different thing entirely meaning the only thing the politicians in question will lose is their credibility, something many sadly lacked already.The influx of MPs jumping on their inverted high-horse to pay back any of the dubious expenses is just embarrassing. Each party is racing to out-do the other with presumably the group at the end with the last man standing being declared the winner. Except of course that political parties with just one man are generally frowned upon in democratic nations.

Posted by Edward M | Report as abusive

In his desire to sound judicious, Nicholas Jones is in danger of damning the leaker with faint praise. The man (woman? I don’t think so) deserves unstinting admiration and support. In particular, he deserves some dosh because our digusting ‘representatives’ will be only too keen to say to him “you’ll never work in this town again”. The debauched state of our polity is clearly demonstrated by the police seeking the leaker and not the leaked-about. Will we never be rid of these greedy conspirators who govern us? A plague on all their houses.

Posted by John Lamble | Report as abusive

Kate, I agree with you. Edward M comments that no laws have been broken, a pretty sweeping statement,given that all has not yet come to the surface.I,m inclined, for instance,to comment that an MP claiming expenses in respect of a mortgage in which the redemption period had since past,is certainly culpable, and, in this particular case, the circumstances ought to be subject to a criminal examination. Very few people in this country are unaware that a mortgage on property they own has concluded. There exists written correspondence involving all parties involved at the conclusion of a mortgage on a property. Your last sentence sums it up for me.

Posted by Libra | Report as abusive

I’m not aware that the media is full of high-minded heroes determined to root out wrongdoing wherever it exists, so I assume that publishing the MPs’ expenses was done for a mixture of greed and self-interest on the part of the leaker and the journalists. Nothing new there.My only comment would be that, whatever the motive, the story is definitlely in the public interest and there should be lots more of it. It is sad that we see so little. The workings of local councils; quangos and government tribunals must surely provide rich pickings for anyone prepared to get in there and pay good money to dig out the dirt.Perhaps the government should consider providing grants to the media to facilitate such clean-up efforts.

Posted by Peter | Report as abusive

Surely its time to call in the fraud squad.If they decide there is wrong doing then prosecute and as the Learned Judge has said let a jury decide if the rules were broken. Then let them try claiming expenses in H.M.P.

Posted by Dan O’Neill | Report as abusive

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Posted by Links on 15_May_09 « The Centre for Investigative Journalism News Blog | Report as abusive

So now we know!!! We know why these croocks did not want the info released, why they fought so hard to give themselves special priovilages, why they did not complain (much) about having small pay rises. They have been caught on the gravey train, pigs at the trough.So what is to be done?1. Sack them2. Repay the fiddled money3. Prosecute and if/when found guilty they should be fined and/or jailed.So that’s them, what about us?1. Parliament, or at least what’s left of it should be dissolved immediately.2. A trasitional government put in place led by those beyond reproach (MPs such as David Shepherd, University profs, lay people even Joanna Lumley!). Their tasks would be:a. to steer the country for a few months while the mess in Parliament is cleaned up and new rules of conduct established.b. To get us back on the road to economic recovery.c. To institute new elections for a much smaller chamber where every MP’s votes actually count and are not just lobby fodder.I could go on – we must start again!

Posted by Micky Mouse | Report as abusive

The Daily Telegraph has done a great service to democracy – perhaps the editor should be knighted! Repayments of the worst excesses and hand wringing over the shortcomings of the system are just crocodile tears so far as I’m concerned. If the expenses abuses had not been published MP’s would have continued as before, with their snouts even deeper in the trough.

Posted by David Bennington | Report as abusive

……….and how much do you bet not one single MP gets prosecuted. That would just hit the nail on the head to all of this outrageously dishonest, unethical behaviour.

Posted by Angela | Report as abusive

Can somebody please now turn their attention to the EU, which is so bent its accounts have not been certified for years? The goings-on there, I suspect, will make the current crisis in the UK Parliament (much as I deplore it) seem about as important as little Johnny stealing a Milky Bar from the tuck shop.

Posted by Matthew | Report as abusive