What has the Telegraph done for the reputation of journalism?

If there’s an advantage that comes from not being either a current MP, nor an aspirant MP, it is at least that I can ask a question like this without being lynched by the baying mob.

And I’m not going to delve in here to the issue of ‘cheque-book journalism’ – everyone will have their own views about when it’s justified and when not. My personal view is that, though the issue of MPs’ expenses is very clearly in the public interest, for the Telegraph to have paid a source some £100,000 for seemingly stolen information which includes personal and private data of MPs, their families and their staff is seriously dodgy behaviour, given all the expenses details they’re covering were to be published shortly anyway.

But back to my central question: what has this past week’s Telegraph revelations done for the reputation of journalism? Because amidst the appalling abuses, genuine scandals and likely frauds that our MPs have committed with our money, the Telegraph has also been guilty of flaky fact-checking, unfair distortions and disgraceful smears.

Inevitably on Lib Dem Voice we’ve been primarily pre-occupied with those allegations relating to our party’s MPs – in at least two cases, Andrew George and Alan Reid, we firmly believe the Telegraph should be printing prominent apologies for what were unjustified slurs.

As a result, my first instinct now, when I hear of the latest MP of whichever party to be ‘named and shamed’, is “I wonder if the Telegraph’s got its facts right this time?” Too many of their expenses stories have failed to stand up to even the most basic scrutiny that I find it hard to take any at face value. (And I won’t reprise here the Telegraph’s woeful failure to report a major story, ‘Smeargate’, when it was right under its nose, instead choosing to copy ‘n’ paste a Number 10 spin operation.)

What’s worse, though, is that the Telegraph allegations have been uncritically repeated, sometimes with further unproven exaggerations, by other news media – print and broadcast – scared to be caught behind the curve, and fearful that any attempt to question the Telegraph’s reporting competence will come across as defending ‘these scrounging MPs’.

Has the BBC, has ITN or Sky, has any of the quality press spent any time critically examining the Telegraph’s allegations, using their own reporters’ expertise to judge which are fair and accurate, and which have been ‘lumped-in’ for the sake of a headline? No, of course not – they’ve all been too busy piling in, lambasting every MP mentioned, upping the ante still further to prove they’re in touch with voters’ anger.

Journalists have, it seems, forgotten how to challenge assumptions. Instead of asking, ‘Are these allegations true, where’s the evidence?’, they’re obsessed with re-iterating this week’s fatuous vox pop meme, ‘Tell me how disgusted you are with all MPs, and how you’ve lost faith in Parliamentary democracy, and that we should get rid of the lot of ’em and “just start again” (whatever the hell that means)’.

Caught up as we are in the maelstrom of the past week’s revelations, it’s impossible yet to discern the long-term impact on politics of the Telegraph’s stories.

Perhaps we’ll come to look back and view it as a form of ‘Diana week’ madness, in which truth and cool rational analysis were brushed to one side in favour of an emotional bloodrush of anger. Or perhaps it really is the start of some form of anti-politics revolution.

More likely, the anger will subside but the impression that MPs and the current political system are rotten will endure, with a disengaged, passive-aggressive electorate – egged on by supine journalists – resentfully observing it all from the sidelines.

What it certainly shows is the danger of just one news outlet being able to command the monopoly of a story. The concepts of natural justice and due process have not just been ignored this week: they’ve been turned on their heads. ‘Guilty until proven innocent’, ‘no smoke without fire’, ‘they’re all as bad as each other’ – such statements have tripped lightly from the lips of even the most intelligent commentators this week. It’s a depressing sight.

To be sure, our MPs have brought this on themselves, both through their sometimes crass and bloated claims, and by the repeated refusal of Labour and Tory MPs to reform the expenses system. But that does not excuse the ugly and OTT response of the Telegraph and other news media this past week.

If (as seems to be the prevailing view) we really are better than our MPs, isn’t it about time we started proving it? That means allowing more than just Telegraph journalists to see the evidence; giving those accused time to defend their actions; and ensuring any appropriate disciplinary action is based on proven fact, not hyperbolic headlines.

Part of being a liberal is about championing minority causes: this week’s seem to be natural justice and responsible journalism.

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33 Comments

  • Silent Hunter 16th May '09 - 1:42pm

    The Telegraph have done us a huge service in bringing this mess out into the light of day where it would never have otherwise been seen.

    Let us not forget that the MP’s themselves and the partisan Speaker Martin were all for blocking the publication of the raw data and now we all know why.

    It amazes me that the public have become so inured to sleaze and corruption in parliament that they are not demanding an immediate General Election.

  • So what action if any has been taken regarding Lord Rennard’s second home claim of £41,678?

    Is the taxpayer going to get their money back?

  • Disorganised1 16th May '09 - 2:47pm

    Journalists are in extremely short supply, instead we have copy takers who repeat the information passed to them by the likes of Damien MacBride.
    The climate of fear that runs through the media post Gilligan is reflected in the way this story has been published. Get it out quick before the injunction arrives.
    You’re right basic checking hasn’t been done, but the MPs have brought this on themselves with their refusal to publicise the data, we all thought there was stuff being fiddled, but we never suspected the length and depth of it.

    Moats and Mock-Tudor beams !

  • David Boycott 16th May '09 - 2:54pm

    We have been demanding an election, ever since Brown’s accession.

    Unhappily, our demands have not been met.

  • The Telegraph’s true colours were exposed when it became known that senior journalists were drinking buddies of Damien McBride.

  • Bring back Alix – she gets it…

    Lib Dems on 15% in tomorrow’s poll. A good week for Clegg indeed…

  • “As a result, my first instinct now, when I hear of the latest MP of whichever party to be ‘named and shamed’, is “I wonder if the Telegraph’s got its facts right this time?””

    But is it the facts or the insinuation that was wrong. AFAICS most of the factual allegations the Telegraph made are correct (ie Andrew George did claim ACA for a flat and his daughter did stay there). The insinuation (that he bought it specifically for his daughter to stay in was incorrect.

    Ditto Alan Reid. It’ is particualarly unfair and shows no understanding of the nature of his constituency (and the researcher comments were apalling). But the actual facts reported were AIUI correct. He did claim that money (and it was totally justified)

    The line you are repeatedly taking is basically the Shaid Malik/Lembit Opik line “blame the Telegraph”. Instead we should be blaming every single MP who has allowed this system to operate.

  • “It’ is”

    I apologise to the Apostrophe society! 🙂

  • from UK polling report

    The figures for ComRes’s poll for the Independent on Sunday are out, and show topline figures (with changes from their last poll at the end of April) of CON 40%(-5), LAB 21%(-5), LDEM 18%(nc). Others enjoy the same sort of boost as in BPIX, which includes UKIP at 5%, Greens at 4% and the BNP at 3%.

    John Rentoul’s report also says “Our poll also suggests that the minor parties are set to break records in the European elections next month” but I think he is referring to a question that found 43% agreeing that they were likely to vote for minor parties, rather than a proper European voting intention question.

  • BPIX poll in the Mail on Sunday:
    CON 42%(-3), LAB 20%(-3), LDEM 15%(-2), OTHERS 23%

  • Of course if MP’s had been honest and open then the Telegraph would not have paid 2 pence for this info let alone £100 000.

    yes they have made some errors in the reporting but that is outweighed by the public good they have done in exposing what had been going on at the ‘putrid house by the river’

  • Has there ever been a day when two polls were published, neither of which showed an increase in support for either of the main three parties?

  • Stephen Tall has at last injected some much needed sense into this debate.

    Clearly, what we are witnessing is an extraordinarily successful exercise in manipulation of public opinion leading to what is little short of mass public hysteria and the suspension of critical thinking among those who ought to know better (including one or two luminaries of LDV).

    When has the “Daily Torygraph” even been in favour of the public interest? It is a newspaper that exists to protect and promote the interests of elites. If public faith in democratic politics is destroyed, then who is left to defend the real public interest? Think about it.

    I note that the “Torygraph’s” smear against Andrew George was repeated twice in the “Daily Mail” today, even though the guy has issued a statement refuting the libel. That is utterly disgraceful.

    The week’s prizes for hyperbolic madness go to:-

    Hywel Morgan, for claiming that it is more wicked to overclaim expenses than to start an illegal war.

    Alix Mortimer, for assuring us that the career of Richard Younger-Ross is doomed because he bought a solid wood bookcase.

  • Tony Greaves 17th May '09 - 12:18am

    Thanks for writing this sensible article, Stephen.

    What we are seeing is the Tabloid Telegraph whipping up a frenzied lynch-mob and spraying round its fire on a large number of generally blameless people instead of targeting the small number who appear to have committed serious breaches (indeed offences in some cases). In which category there are as yet no Libeal Democrats.

    Their behaviour is both despicable and illegal (I strongly object to the fact that they have received stolen goods in the form of my daughter’s bank and NI details etc and have made no efforts to apologise, delete or return such information or indeed to explain how they are safeguarding it falling into the hands of other people).

    But one has to question their motives (apart from circulation). Their list of “honest” MPs who have claimed no ACA allowance gives the game away – they really want a Commons stuffed with the kind of people they represent, all with personal resources that mean they don’t need to claim expenses.

    I am distressed that so many Liberal Democrats have joined this vicious hue and cry and can’t see what is going on – which is a threat to our whole democratic system.

    Tony Greaves

  • You tut about ‘stolen’ documents and go on about the Lib Dem cause of natural justice whilst your party refuses to repay money it knows fully well was stolen from other people. What about some justice there?

  • Martin Kinsella 17th May '09 - 2:22pm

    Stephen, shouldn’t you be trotting out more self-referential nonsensical Me-me’s instead of trying to wade into something you have obvsiously struggled to get your head around.

    The Telegraph has done what is has to do, it is the function of a newspaper. Perhaps you would rather they were all supine and deferential.

    It is good for this country and our democracy that this scandal has been brought out in the open. What was the Telegraph to do, sit on it. They have blown open our democracy and shown some of these MP’s for what they are, including some of ours and good on them for that and Clegg grows in stature with every passing week as a result.

  • Martin Kinsella 17th May '09 - 3:59pm

    So which ones has it got wrong then Mark and are you as diligent in your posts as you expect them to be or is it do as I say ?

    Patrick, the government was elected by the system in place at the time. They have a mandate. I agree with Vince, Nick and Susan though.

  • Martin Kinsella 17th May '09 - 4:54pm

    Mark, it is a big site and I cannot trawl through it 🙂

    However I have seen comments, such as the rebuttal by Andrew George. That hardly makes it fact does it. I would be happy to look at the results of an independent audit and take a view after that but I am not going to take an MP’s word for it after all dozens who came out in anger and rage at this have then ended up with egg on their faces. I am also certainly not going to shoot the messenger either.

  • Alix Mortimer 17th May '09 - 5:14pm

    Martin, I’m not up for shooting the messenger, or being backward in condemning people, but the Telegraph did omit (and still, I think, omits) the critical fact that Andrew George owns a third of his flat. The taxpayer pays for two thirds of it. By analogy to the tax system, that makes a considerable difference to his case.

    Private usage is an established principle in every area of English tax law from self-employment to capital gains calculations. It gives him a certain amount of private leeway in how he chooses to use the flat. (NB, he is being utterly feeble in putting this across successfully on tv, so far as I’ve seen, but it is at least top of the list on his website reply to the Telegraph).

  • The rest of the Press will be green with envy about the Telegraph. They have a huge incentive to find big mistakes and report them. They haven’t. What does that tell us?

    Of course the Telegraph is imperfect and liable to bias. Thanks to Alix for (a) demonstrating contempt for the corrupt, and thus establishing credibility, then (b) defending those who aren’t corrupt. But that defence has been, basically, that the Telegraph have failed to understand some of the crucial fine details. Not terribly surprising. If that isn’t the pinnacle of superb journalism, it isn’t really the nadir, either.

    Let’s not shoot the messenger, and let’s not obsess about the imperfections of his communication style either. Let’s learn from the message.

  • Alan Douglas 18th May '09 - 6:41am

    Stephen says “given all the expenses details they’re covering were to be published shortly anyway. ”

    Stephen, that “all” is simply not true – the details were being edited to exclude 2nd home addresses, which would have made flipping invisible.

    I am still hoping that the Telegraph will summarise when the dust has settled, and be big enough to retract or at least amend its stories where it has been found to be inaccurate.

    Further point : I for one have had problems remaining calm with traffic wardens and all the similar bureaucratic ars*h*les that our masters have inflicted on us, they being the only ones who were within my reach.

    Now I feel so much better about these petty pests, as the real culprits have come within reach, even if only via the newspaper exposees.

    Alan Douglas

  • Stephen, what utter rot. The truth about Mp’s sleaze would have been hidden if they had their way and blacked out key information that shows how Mp’s have flipped homes, claimed multiple addreses etc. etc.

    They have done Britain a massive service. Honourable Mps had plenty of chances to raise this and sort it in the past… but just as in Rennard’s case it’s I’ll watch your back mate.

    If Clegg is serious… take action and be honest, othersie the Lib Dems are no better than the rest

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