The current expose of MPs’ expense claims continues to drive the headlines. Today a Government Minister has resigned (the freebie newspapers in London used the word ‘axed’) and we are told that public outrage has increased. I have not yet heard anyone support corruption of the sort being exposed, but I still remain concerned about other elements of the way this business is being worked out. Before going on to them, let me re-emphasise the following:

  • public service corruption and misuse of money, power or influence are not defensible;
  • public servants have a responsibility not only to appear to be ‘clean’, but to be clean – no wonder the bankers are beginning to re-visit what MPs said about their greed several months ago.
  • many people agree that the Daily Telegraph was right to buy the leaked information on the grounds that the ends justify the means. But, apply this maxim to other circumstances and we soon become unstuck. More later.

I heard on the radio yesterday a variety of people saying variations of ‘off with their heads’. Fine sentiment and very understandable. Two questions cry out, however:

(a) How else should anyone respond to a question about MPs’ scandalous expenses? Is anyone really going to reply to a journalist with words to the effect of, ‘I support MPs’ corruption and wish the matter would simply go away’? The question put has only one possible answer: outrage. So, we don’t necessarily learn a lot from the voxpops.

(b) How do we critics now suggest that Parliament should resume its important business? Or do we prefer a political vacuum on the grounds that ‘none of them can now be trusted’? I haven’t heard any solutions offered – just the criticism. But we all have a vested interest in and responsibility for what happens next.

newspapersThis, I think, is where I want to come back to the comments made in response to my earlier posts on this matter and, in particular, to the contended issue of media accountability. The media are not neutral observers merely reporting what they see ‘out there’. Their handling of the matter makes them active agents in the story and, therefore, brings upon them a moral responsibility to not only ‘pull down’, but ‘build up’. They shape reality as well as perceptions of reality and cannot be objective observers, free to walk away once the demolition is complete. Destruction of reputations (however justified in essence and, possibly, necessary in practice) is easy; construction of – or permission to reconstruct – a reputation is also essential. So, how does the Daily Telegraph in particular propose to play its part in the reconstruction of Parliament’s image and authority once the destruction phase is over? This is a question that merits an answer if we take democratic responsibility seriously.

So, how should I respond to the comments articulated clearly and helpfully by Andrew Carey‘s comments on my last post? I’ll take a couple of them in turn and then add a few:

1. “…it’s not simply the awfulness of only some MPs’ behaviour, because the system itself is one that is designed and policed by MPs.” I could not agree more. It is absurd to have self-regulation on disciplinary matters such as this. So, will the press now accept the logic of their argument and allow regulation and discipline of journalists and newspapers by an outside and independent body (unlike the Press Complaints Commission)? Ask anyone who feels misrepresented by the media – or, indeed, whose life has been destroyed publicly by media agencies – how easy it is to get any form of redress and see what grief emerges. Responses so far to my earlier (Andrew calls them ‘simplistic’) observations on the current business indicate that many, many people are as outraged by what is seen as an unaccountable media as they are by MPs on the fiddle. I don’t think this is understood by all journalists.

2. “However debates of this kind are vital (though in the context of this entirely justifiable media coverage somewhat strange) because in a free society it’s pretty much impossible to legislate in this area without the unintended consequence of muzzling a necessarily free press. So the only way forward is for the public to punish the press when it steps out of line (The Sun’s reputation in Liverpool springs to mind), and for journalists and editors to have ethical concerns constantly before them.” I agree until I come to the words ‘free press’ and then I start to question.

Having observed daily press output from places such as the Communist Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, I know a fair bit about propaganda, misrepresentation and how the media can be used for political ends. The irony of calling the Soviet organ ‘Pravda’ (‘truth’) was always lost on those who believed in the system. But it is clear that most of the consumers also knew they were being fed rubbish and treated it appropriately. (Don’t get me started on sources of toilet paper in the Soviet Union.)

The problem with the bald concept of a ‘free press’ is two-fold: first, it purports to present reality despite the fact that someone (with their own worldview and assumptions/preferences about the world) is deciding what is ‘news’ and what has priority; secondly, it does not seem to say anything about the ‘freedom’ of those it reports on. The first point is simply a fact and I am not decrying it – I just want it noted. The second point is more serious and an example might help illustrate the problem.

After the Archbishop of Canterbury did his stuff on Sharia in early 2008 one of the tabloids ran a campaign to ‘get this idiot out’ (or words to that effect), inviting readers to sign up to their campaign to get Rowan sacked. A week or two later and nothing further was heard about it. A bit of fun? A way of selling papers? An irrelevant ploy with no real consequences? Or deeply irresponsible and sneeringly disrespectful of the readers: winds them up… then walks away to find another thing to get enraged about – but with no account for the damage to anyone involved?

During that particular episode I was interviewed by a national broadsheet journalist. He didn’t ask me questions; rather, he put statements to me and invited me to agree with him. I asked him if he had read the text of Rowan’s address (which a year later is not regarded as contentious by most people). He said he hadn’t because “Rowan writes in a complicated way and it is just too hard.” I seem to remember responding with a question that went something like: “You are paid a nice salary to write hundreds of thousands of words every year, telling us how to think about the world and what you think matters. But, even with the job and the salary and a university degree behind you, you find a crucial text ‘a little bit hard’?!” Are we to respect that or should we (and the editor) expect better?

A week later I did a forty-five minute interview with German radio (in German) explaining the Archbishop’s speech, its context and the polity of the country in which it was made (very different from Germany with its Grundgesetz and different history of Muslim immigration). They clearly learned as we went on, asked intelligent questions and treated the whole matter with intellectual respect. I was astonished.

I want to encourage and support an intelligent ‘free’ press that does not see its own ‘freedom’ as a right or licence to trum or trample upon other people’s freedoms (to speech, to expression, to privacy, etc.) without accountability. That accountability is simply not there. The responsibility to build as well as pull down is strong, but I am not sure I see it. If I am wrong, tell me. (Liverpool would not shun the Sun just because someone had been misrepresented and their life ruined by poor or wrong reporting – the Hillsborough example is unique and does not impinge on the matters I am raising here.)

So, I conclude and invite further responses to what I hope will be seen as a serious discussion.