Pretty much everyone in the media world agreed that the story of 2009 was the expenses scandal. And it’s easy to see why. Journalist Heather Brook explained her motivation for pursuing the story in the NUJ’s magazine last July, and it reads as a pretty good advocacy of committed, investigative reporting.
It’s the same everywhere in this country, they don’t want to give you any information that could challenge their authority. In the US I was trained to do journalism in a way that was heavily reliant on public records. I came to Britain and there are no public records to speak of. Your journalism is based on who you know, not what you know, and I didn’t know anybody. I tried to do journalism as in the US and found there were no records, which made me angry.
Brook put in her requests on MPs and their expenses after she approached the House of Commons to see how it was preparing for the Freedom of Information Act coming into force and finding that familiar obstructive attitude. Now working with colleagues at The Sunday Times, Telegraph and BBC, she fought to make these details public, and the rest is newspaper history. The Telegraph handled the story well, helped by the stupidity of MPs who insisted on censoring information already made public as they released records in a belated attempt to give the appearance of transparency.
A change for the better?
So far, so understandable. But as the media congratulates itself on a job well done, the question of what lasting effect the story has had seems little considered. Because while the original story was a great, classic piece of reporting a running story, the view that it has made any significant change for the better in the UK’s body politic is less easy to sustain.
I should get one thing straight here. No criticism of the journalists involved in breaking that original story is intended. They did a great job, and cannot be held solely responsible for the public mood that has grown in its wake. But the prevailing view of MPs now is that they are all a bunch of money-grabbing gits, and few if any expense claims are seen as legitimate. So we have concocted outrage at every meat pie or jar of pickle that is found in the register, and a failure to understand that for MPs, just as for many other people, there are expenses incurred through work which it is legitimate to claim.
Don’t get me wrong. I have little time for the great majority of MPs. Some of those I’ve met are decent enough people with decent enough motivation, but there seems little willingness to challenge the neo-conservative consensus of modern times, and far too many seem to regard power as the only principle worth fighting for. So I’m not seeking to portray them as hard done by. The fact that it was journalism, of all trades, that was able to skewer them so thoroughly on the issue of expenses is probably illustration enough of how badly many of them were acting.
But far from changing our political culture for the better, the expenses scandal has opened up yet more distance between electors and their representatives. “They’re all the same, noses in the trough” seems to be the view of the person on the Clapham broadband connection, a view which seems set to further reduce participation in the political process. Which means a further consolidation of power in a distant political class.
A glimpse of change
I was discussing this with a lobbyist friend of mine over the New Year. He made an interesting point. “If, in the first few days of the story”, he said, “500 leaders of charities and NGOs had confronted Parliament with a broad set of demands, we may have seen some real change.” It’s a suggestion that harks back to the history of attempts to change the political structure of the UK, when reform-minded groups such as the London Corresponding Society or Charles Grey’s Society of the Friends of the People made representations to an unpopular and weakened legislature in order to build a momentum for real change.
The tendency of the media to over-estimate its importance on politics also fuels another of what promises to be the big stories of the year – the live, televised General Election debate between the party leaders. It’s been hailed, by the media, as a chance to re-engage the public, widen democracy and even to “challenge the status quo”, as Sky News editor Jon Ryley argued. But it is none of the above.
TV – problem or solution?
Indeed, it could be argued that TV itself is part of the problem. TV news requires quick identification of points and issues, sharper contrasts and broader brushes than, for example, print, which more easily lends itself to considered analysis. It is this need to communicate instantly and directly with a mass audience that has spawned the soundbite culture.
It’s interesting to go through the arguments Ryley made in his piece for News Corporation’s sister title The Times last September. He says
… the spin doctors tell us we don’t need a televised debate because we already have Prime Minister’s Questions. But once the election campaign begins, the weekly routine ends. Where’s the public accountability in that?
Where indeed? I am not, however, aware of any plans to screen PM’s Question Time – perhaps the ratings aren’t there. Ryley also addresses the criticism that…
… a TV debate would be unfair because it includes one party or excludes another. We all know, however, that there are only three parties that contest nearly every seat in the land, and have significant representation in Westminster. They and they alone should be the participants.
So much for challenging the status quo.
I predict there will be more self-contratulation and overblown claims as the debate gets nearer. Maybe it will re-engage the public and promote greater turnout at the polls, just like in… er… America. But I suspect not. A TV debate will put personality even more centrally, and push policy further to the sidelines. Gordon Brown will almost certainly be rubbish and David Cameron and Nick Clegg much more accomplished. But how much more will we know about the policies? Cameron’s poll ratings are already fuelled mainly by the way he comes across, because it’s almost impossible to find any indication of what he or his party intends to do. Not that the same strategy did Blair any harm in 1997.
The leaders’ debate will be a big deal for the media, but make very little difference to politics. It will not challenge the neo-liberal consensus or properly examine the appeal of the so-called fringe parties. And it will certainly not move us any closer to achieving any change in the voting system which may genuinely facilitate greater engagement.
The most useful purpose the leaders’ debate will serve is to deflect attention from any real discussion of how the media can report on and analyse the political process in a much better manner than it currently does.