This is what happens when journalists lower their standards #mpsexpenses

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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20 Comments

  • Ruth Bright 23rd May '09 - 4:13pm

    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.

  • 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

  • Ruth Bright 23rd May '09 - 5:49pm

    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.)

  • Ruth Bright 23rd May '09 - 6:28pm

    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!

  • Ali Goldsworthy 23rd May '09 - 6:30pm

    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.

  • 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)

  • 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…

  • Donald Smith 29th May '09 - 1:57pm

    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

  • 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?

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