What makes the scandal surrounding MPs’ expenses so extraordinary is that it resulted from politicians acting collectively to deceive the public. It was that collective betrayal by elected representatives which explains the depth of public anger. Nicholas Jones was one of the speakers at a debate at the House of Commons organised by the Commonwealth Journalists Association on the question: “What price good governance?” (26.10.2009)
The complaint that has been made so often in the past here at Westminster is that there is too much collusion between politicians and journalists. There has certainly been no talk of that since May of this year when the Daily Telegraph first began publishing the hitherto secret details about the claims for expenses which have been made over the last five years. I want to put my cards on the table straight away: even though the Daily Telegraph had to pay £110,000 for the purloined disc containing details of Mps’ claims and allowances, I think the means did justify the end. I have to admit I am extremely uncomfortable about the concept of journalists paying for information…but in this case what the Daily Telegraph did was in the public interest.
In my fifty years as a reporter and correspondent I have never been tempted to buy a story. It is something that I would never even have contemplated during my three decades at the BBC. So what makes Mps’ expenses different?
First we have to understand that although politicians and journalists do need each other and usually have a working relationship of sorts, we are still two different tribes, with different values. Politicians have to show loyalty to their party, to their cause or beliefs. They can only achieve their aims through political power. The loyalty that is required of them -- or which they impose on themselves -- can lead to a distortion of the truth. Now I accept that many journalists also have a political agenda; many have to follow the political line of their proprietors.
And commercial considerations do apply. Newspapers have to be sold; programmes need viewers -- and yes the Daily Telegraph had its biggest upsurge in sales for years. This leads on to another point of concern: the Daily Telegraph’s coverage does seem to have been stacked firmly against the Labour government of Gordon Brown.
Nevertheless nothing excuses the collective deception of MPs. The reality of political life and the strength of party loyalty does mean that sometimes politicians are prepared to mislead journalists. Their message is clear: the media must not be allowed to stand in the way political progress. What made the scandal of Mps expenses so extraordinary was that it was a case of Mps acting collectively to deceive the public. They were determined to keep secret the true level of the allowances they were receiving.
Once the House of Commons voted to put itself above the law -- by exempting the publication of Mps’ expenses from the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act -- it showed that politicians as a class cannot always be trusted.
And it is that collective betrayal by our elected politicians which explains the depth of public anger. In my views MPs crossed the line when they agreed to deny media access to information about their claims, receipts and allowances. In the face of prevarication of that kind, I believe the purchase of stolen information can be justified in the public interest. We hear now in hindsight that some Mps didn’t claim expenses and that others knew there was widespread abuse of the system. Why at the time were there no whistleblowers among Mps? Why did they all acquiesce and go along with a system which many of them knew was so open to abuse?
Again I accept that Mps came to rely on their allowances -- and were encouraged to claim them -- because successive governments have lacked the political courage to give them decent pay rises. But that kind of inertia -- let’s just carry on as before -- is the excuse that always applies when justifying a closed shop. That’s what Mps became, a closed shop of parliamentarians, where self interest was put of the public interest. The Westminster expenses scandal is a salutary lesson to other Parliaments: politicians are deluding themselves if they think they can escape public scrutiny when it comes to the way they spend allowances funded by the taxpayer. It showed that if legislators try to avoid scrutiny -- and use the law to defend their privacy -- they are still in danger of being exposed by whistleblowers and the like.
This risk that has intensified with the internet and the interaction between blogs, networking sites and so on.
It was workers who had been contracted to do the redacting of Mps’ expenses -- this was the misguided attempt by Mps to publish the amounts that had been paid but not the actual claims and receipts -- which led to them being exposed. Some of those doing the redacting were from the armed forces -- earning extra money -- and they were so disgusted they decided to expose what was going on. They were amazed that when they were having to use their own money to buy extra clothing and equipment for tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mps were claiming for the cleaning of their swimming pools, their gardening and so on and so forth.
The go between for the whistleblowers was Major John Wick who conducted the negotiations with the newspapers and eventually did the deal with the Daily Telegraph. Admittedly press standards are lower in the UK than in many other countries: paid for journalism is an everyday occurrence. Intrusion into people’s private lives is commonplace. Private information finds a ready market. In the case of Mps and their expenses, data was already leaking out and the media‘s appetite was insatiable. And as the parliamentarians have found to their cost, the court of public opinion had no hesitation in finding Mps “guilty”. So the advice to other legislatures is twofold: there has to be openness and transparency when it comes to public spending, including that by the MPs themselves.
It only makes matters worse if a parliament tries to put itself above the law, as the House of Commons discovered to its cost when it tried to exempt Mps from the Freedom of Information Act.