Not the kind of stern injunction I was expecting to come out with after a day of Liberal Democrat expenses revelations, I must say. I was all prepared to be angry, disappointed, humbled and even-handedly condemnatory. It has become a sort of communally agreed ceasefire in the political blogosphere and the media in the past few days – no-one’s allowed to query, say “eh?” or doubt the word of the Telegraph. That would be being cocky and partisan. One must only observe the same humilities as everybody else. Shock horror expressions must be worn at all times.
Well I don’t buy it. Under cover of this pious mood music, the Telegraph are apparently in the process of getting away with some fairly outrageous smears against two Lib Dem MPs. Had either story been mounted on any normal day it would have been the subject of fierce debate, much better research and – ultimately – a withdrawal and apology. But the Telegraph has thrown so much mud around this week that the small amount that slides immediately to the floor goes almost unnoticed.
The two MPs in question are of course Andrew George and Alan Reid. They’re not the only Lib Dems I felt the Telegraph treated a bit unfairly, mind – Norman Baker and Steve Webb were both, puzzlingly, accused of scrupulously obeying both the letter and spirit of the rules, a charge to which one is at a loss to know how to respond. But George and Reid are the two for whom the Telegraph’s misrepresentation begins to amount to outright lying.
Andrew has a two-bedroom flat. His daughter, a student with her own halls of residence room uses it to store things, stays there sometimes and spends time with him there sometimes. “Student flat!” screamed the Telegraph’s headline – it was the first and most heinous item in their round-up of great Lib Dem crimes.
They tried initially to make hay with the fact that her name was on the insurance documents, only to find that there was a perfectly logical explanation. I haven’t actually rung the Post Office to check the likely veracity of Andrew’s claim that he wasn’t able to insure a second property with them and already had his own name on the policy for his Cornwall home. But it would be a daft thing to lie about.
So we’re left with the fact that Andrew’s daughter sometimes uses the flat, although her more permanent home was her own halls of residence (again, easy to check). Which might have been a problem. Some of the furniture for the flat does seem to have been bought with a frequent guest in mind.
The Telegraph said (and still say):
Mr George’s claims reveal how MPs are able to use the system to buy properties from which their families can benefit.
Except that the Telegraph somehow forgot to mention that Andrew actually owns a third of the flat himself. The taxpayer pays the interest on two thirds of the mortgage. Andrew pays the other third, and charged only half his furnishing expenditure on the flat to the taxpayer. If we were being absolutely strict, we might decide that Andrew’s daughter really should not be using the flat more than a third of the time. And if the Telegraph has any evidence to offer for this, it utterly fails to produce it, despite apparently having camped a photographer outside said flat all day.
In fact, at the time of writing, the Telegraph has failed even to acknowledge that Andrew pays for one third of the flat. Since it is not telling the truth on that matter, it is very hard to judge the veracity of the rest of its claims.
Andrew has been charging around the news outlets for the past twelve hours demanding an apology. I hope that Joe Taylor was wrong in suggesting in a comment that the Telegraph went for Andrew because his daughter would make a great front-page picture. I really do. Not the sort of thing I’d want on my conscience as a journalist unless I’d actively chosen to go to the News of the World. But, well, what with the photographer-waiting-outside-flat thing (I’ve not heard that they’ve bothered to lay on this special treatment for anyone else implicated) and the fact that they’ve used two shots of her above their stories in the past twelve hours, it really doesn’t look good, does it.
So, in sum, we’ve got a guy who at worst may have overcharged the taxpayer for a futon having his name dragged through the mud for a far, far greater offence by means of the omission of a germane truth, and a totally blameless 21-year-old girl who didn’t ask to be on the front page of a national news website for most of the day. And I note that this morning these same jackal-hacks, realising that their flat story wasn’t stacking up because they hadn’t bothered to do any research, have added some more coverage on his hotel bills before he bought the flat. They weren’t of any moment before, but now they are.
Classy, Telegraph, classy.
Then there’s Alan Reid. He whose £1,580 in B&B claims so outraged the Telegraph because they were within his own constituency, Argyll and Bute. Go on, let’s just look at that map again, shall we?
These bozos at the Telegraph never looked at a map, did they? They should have the grace to admit that – there is simply no other explanation for such rank stupidity. These smirking goons actually think a “constituency” is twenty by fourteen Georgian terraced streets, don’t they. They have no other reference point than London, they’ve sought no other reference point than London.
That’s a twelfth of bloody Scotland, that is. A quarter of it is islands, some of them so small and remote that I keep rubbing at specks on my laptop screen and being puzzled when they don’t move. And according to Alan (again, easy to check) the ferries won’t always, shock horror, deposit themselves in your eyeline the minute you want to leave one island and go on to the next, or undertake the six hour journey across your constituency to home.
And the Telegraph suggest he’s out of order in claiming B&B expenses? In fact, they go even further than that. As if in panic at the realisation that this particular bit of mud ain’t gonna stick (did someone look at a map at the last minute?) they even insinuate, like the worst guttersnipe from a tabloid sewer, that he had an affair on one such trip. Without actually saying so, of course. That would be far too much like a risk.
And what kind of MP have they done this to? This is a Scottish MP, for goodness’ sake, who doesn’t even have a second home. He manages on hotels in London and late night flights to Glasgow. From his spending and working patterns he ought to be the kind of person being held up by the Telegraph and others as the model of probity – the hard-working MP who actually visits his constituents and doesn’t spend his time living it up in a paid-for London pad.
I’m all for exposing the appalling, the bad and the merely dodgy – whatever the party. But in attacking these two MPs, in failing to carry out even the most basic checks like call an aide to ask about a property or even – for goodness’ sake – look at a map, the Telegraph have covered themselves in far more shit than either of their targets. They’ve undermined all their good work in exposing the various cheats and big spenders – Lib Dems, Tories, Labour and all – and instead exposed themselves as lazy, sub-standard journalists. For anyone who truly wants to see offenders expelled and the system cleaned up by means of unimpeachable and compelling argument, this is an enormous disappointment.
On the facts as they appear at the moment, I can’t see any reason why a bit of suing mightn’t be in order. Lies and omissions appear to be involved, and the aim has undoubtedly been defamatory. The writers of those articles should simply apologise, publicly, prominently and immediately, to Andrew George and Alan Reid, or expect worse.