Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Expenses Scandal and the media: an avoidable disaster?

Steve Bell's take on MP's expenses - copyright of The Guardian
The Great Expenses Scandal of 2009 was the biggest storm to hit the turbulent climate of the Westminster Village for many years. Although political corruption has been a feature of public life for as long as the national consciousness can remember, it had registered on such a huge scale. Even where sex scandals, cash for honours, questions and passports have passed over and left the detritus of ministerial careers in their wake, the cumulative effect of the revelations of office, home and travel expenses of 630 MPs shocked the British public.

For anyone who worked in Westminster, it can't have been surprising. Anyone who has ever worked for an MP wouldn't bat an eyelid at some of the claims. Like many other people with daily lives built around a series of expenses claims, some Members of Parliament just didn't bother themselves with form-filling and bureaucracy for the reconciliation of receipts for dinners with parliamentary colleague or a second home mortgage repayments. And because they'd taken their eye off the ball in quite a spectacular way, MPs were oblivious to the potential damage to their reputation caused by a liberal interpretation of the rules. In any other organisation, an officious finance officer and robust policies would refuse the most extravagant claims, but Commons clerks knew it was the job of MPs to account for their mistakes – and be held accountable for them.

The media should have been on to this sooner – after all, it wasn't as if MPs expenses had never been under the microscope before. What made the 2009 scandal so dramatic was the way in which it broke. The Daily Telegraph pounced on the opportunity to buy and then pore over the contents of stolen computer discs from the House of Commons, weeks before they were due to be published online anyway. It was a significant leak, not without its own ethical problems (the Times had first refusal) – but breaking the story relied on indiscretion and misconduct in itself. There did not appear to be any particular political agenda behind the leak, with Tory grandees and old Labour stalwarts alike under the spotlight – marking an 'all-out' assault on MPs by the media.

Westminster just didn't know how to handle it. The marriage between politicians and the media had broken down irrevocably, on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour. The roles changed, and the relationship rebalanced. As Professor Ralph Negrine of Sheffield University put it:

During the expenses scandal – a witch hunt – politicians could not find a way of dealing with broadcasters [who] became more accusatory and interpretive in their approach.
MPs could not justify themselves – their problem was 'how can we explain ourselves?”

Although every party was affected in some way – proportionally less so for the LibDems - there was no coherent strategy as to how to deal with the accusations. Party headquarters would distance themselves from disgraced candidates – and brief against those who have been deemed beyond the pail – leaving angry, betrayed and bitter MPs to pick up the pieces, attempting to salvage what remained of their reputations. 

A notorious casualty was the MP for Norwich North, Dr Ian Gibson, who when faced with being barred by Labour's star chamber in standing at the next General Election, resigned as an MP, triggering an immediate by-election and subsequent loss to the Tories. Dr Gibson had come clean over selling his London flat cut-price for the benefit of his daughter and her boyfriend. The so-called 'star chamber', deemed this unacceptable, Gibson's resignation was accepted, and an otherwise hard-working figure of integrity left public life. 
In the end, it was the Labour party's judgement to make – as it was for the Tories' with Sir Peter 'Duck Island' Viggers and other deposed Members. But fundamentally, the media won this battle, and the aftermath of the MP's expenses scandal had an enormous impact on the makeup of the House of Commons at the 2010 General Election, with new, 'clean' candidates replacing their disgraced predecessors. As Negrine points out, “during the 1980s and 1990s – news management and spin worked. But it did not work during the expenses scandal. Before this, politicians had space and opportunity to make their case”. 
Now, the dynamics of the relationship presumes politicians are in the wrong from the outset.

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