MPs' Expenses and the Virtue of Chequebook Journalism; MEDIA ANALYSIS

The Evening Standard (London, England), May 13, 2009 | Go to article overview

MPs' Expenses and the Virtue of Chequebook Journalism; MEDIA ANALYSIS


Byline: Roy Greenslade

THE SORRY saga of MPs' expenses is a remarkable media story. It began with a dogged investigation by a lone campaigner. It eventually turned into a cause celebre as almost every national newspaper editor took up the case. It has now culminated in a truly eyeopening series of public-interest revelations.

Along the way, it has also raised a range of ethical questions, mostly for MPs, though many of them are seeking to blame the messenger by talking pejoratively of chequebook journalism.

Before I deal with that, let me first praise Heather Brooke, the freelance journalist who skilfully based her campaign to force the Commons authorities to reveal how MPs spend taxpayers' money by applying the letter and the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.

Though the Act is imperfect, Brooke -- who spent a large portion of her journalistic life in the United States where there is much greater official transparency -- has a sincere belief in public accountability. She also enthuses trainee journalists to follow her path, as I have witnessed because she gives a yearly lecture to my post-grad journalism students at London's City University. It is always received well.

Brooke follows in the tradition of journalists who pursue single-minded missions on behalf of the greater good, earning only a meagre reward for their efforts. But MPs, who should act for the greater good, cannot believe that Brooke doesn't have some kind of vested (financial) interest in exposing their expenses to the public gaze.

One Labour MP said as much a couple of weeks ago when the investigative journalist Nick Davies and I appeared before the Commons Media, Culture and Sport Select Committee. It was a pathetic attempt to sling mud at Brooke and a forewarning of MPs' reactions to the Daily Telegraph's acquisition of their expenses claims.

They have cried foul ever since the Telegraph broke the story, castigating the editor, Will Lewis, for having paid to acquire what they argue is "stolen property."

Here is a typical reaction from Sir Stuart Bell MP: "It is disgraceful that a national newspaper should stoop so low as to buy information which will be in the public domain in July. It undermines the very basis of our democracy and is against all the rules of fair play."

Let me rephrase that. It is disgraceful MPs should stoop so low as to make outrageous expenses claims, including the "flipping" of second homes in order to make unacceptable profits at the taxpayers' expense. It is against all the rules of fair play, and undermines the relationship between MP and voter, the very basis of our democracy.

That is the straightforward publicinterest defence for what the Telegraph has done. It has exposed material that may well have been redacted (also known as censored) by the time the claims were presented in a stagemanaged manner to the public in the soporific holiday month of July. …

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