Tuesday, October 26, 2004
If ever there were a non-story, it is the disclosure last week of MPs' expense claims. Not a single Member of Parliament has been proven corrupt.
Predictably, that didn't stop Fleet Street's finest working themselves up into a lather of self-righteous indignation. Many of the national dailies deliberately misled their readers into thinking that MPs' expenses are some sort of perk or top-up salary.
Needless to say, the most ridiculous comments were in the Sun, whose leader last Friday began, "We sent a Sun pig to Parliament to see if he could dip his snout in the MPs' expenses trough." Last weekend's Sunday Times was casually referring to "lavish expenses".
Even the Independent, which can normally be relied on for a more sober assessment, referred in an article last Friday to "the astronomical cost of Britain's 659 MPs."
The facts behind the headlines turned out to be thoroughly mundane. Your average MP claims £118,000 per annum, of which the bulk (around £70,000) is spent on staff salaries and most of the remainder on routine office overheads. It isn't widely known that, unlike, say, a newspaper editor, MPs are not automatically provided with secretaries, office equipment or postage, but must pay for their own.
In this post-Poulson, post-Nolan world, nearly everything is transparent and above board. It has become very difficult, not to say politically suicidal, for an elected politician in Britain to trouser money illicitly.
One of the few journalists to keep his feet on the ground was Quentin Letts in the Daily Telegraph; 'The real story is that most MPs are honest' was the accurate but boring headline of his article. Sadly, that's not the sort of headline that sells newspapers.
Another sane voice was Peter Riddell in Friday's Times, who remarked, "...the totals are still small by international standards. And, by and large, our politics remains pretty clean."
MPs have rightly pointed to the humbug of newspaper editors, who pontificate about MPs' salaries and expenses when their own are much more generous. After all, none of our politicians can even begin to rival the behaviour of former press proprietor Conrad Black.
But no-one seems to have spotted the real story. The media attacks on MPs are part of an ongoing campaign by the right-wing press to discredit representative democracy. It's all part of a "they're all the same", "they're only it for the money" narrative, a cynical belief that everyone in public life is a crook and a curious expectation that public figures should be kept in a permanent state of humiliation.
The effect of this propaganda is to drive down electoral turnouts and discourage talented people from entering public life. You have to ask yourself who benefits from the degradation of our civil society. I doubt such powerful enemies of democracy would be keen on any public scrutiny of their own affairs.