Interestingly hostile reactions from several journalists to my last blog – which made me go back and re-think it. The problem is that I stand by what I wrote, even if the tone was pretty harsh.

TelegraphWhen dealing with moral issues, we cannot take one case in isolation from others. Maybe now is not the time for the media to give attention to their own behaviour – the preoccupation with the expenses hysteria is too noisy – but attention needs to be given to it at some point. British journalism is an embarrassment in other parts of the world of which I have first-hand knowledge. I also spent years reading Pravda, Izvestiya and other propaganda organs in the bad old days and keep up with them (from time to time) even now; this is a complicated area and worthy of more sober examination. ‘Media morality’ is too important a social matter to be left as an academic concern of the few – it impinges on psychology as well as sociology.

Roy Greenslade has defended the Telegraph in his blog. I take his point (you’ll have to read it to see what that is), but think there remain questions about the ethics of buying leaks – for example, the diminution of trust such behaviour engenders. And, for the record, Martin Beckford has written helpfully about ‘an honest MP’.

Let’s be clear:

  • there are some very good journalists whose judgements I trust and whose integrity (in a tough world) I respect. Good media are essential to good democracy. The media have a vital role in investigating where subterfuge is designed to conceal what should be exposed to the light. (Roy Greenslade cites the case of Thalidomide.)
  • Most MPs offer themselves for public service and do a very good job. Their reward is to be pilloried by a media that then asks why people trust politicians so little. We are mature – we can de-elect them next time round if we don’t like them.
  • Criticism of the bad needs to be balanced by elevation of the good. Where are the good stories about politicians? Or are we content to see a generation of cynics grow up, exposed only to our sneering contempt? Why would the sort of people we want to go into public life actually do so – when all you can expect is this sort of negative attention?
  • This is not about publishing only anodyne fluff stories. It is about portraying the whole of life and praising what is good as well as castigating the bad.

But, I repeat the question that won’t go away: will editors publish their expenses with receipts? The media are not morally neutral and do not occupy neutral space in our society.

So, the Daily Telegraph has exposed the corruption of our MPs and put them to shame on the front pages of our noble newspapers. How wonderful of these public citizens to use their clout to defend the pure British tax-payer against the hypocritical excesses of the politicians who have no motive for public service other than to line their greasy pockets. A warm round of applause, then, for our heroic newspapers.

Or, like me, you’d prefer to bow your head in shame.  Yes, some (not all) MPs have played the system and maximised their income from allowable expenses. Yes, the system is terrible and needs urgent reform. Yes, some politicians have been cynical in their exploitation of the rules of the game. Yes, some politicians are possibly corrupt and in the business for the wrong reasons. But should we not also be ashamed at the cynical hypocrisy of our national press?

ParliamentThe newspapers now behave as the moral arbiters they decry the Church for once having been. Almost impossible to counter (have you tried litigation?), they can shred people’s reputations and diminish public trust in institutions. Yet, when was the last time a newspaper editor resigned because of their own moral hypocrisy? When was the last time a journalist – who calls it ‘in the public interest’ when ‘exposing’ someone else – resigned on the grounds that he/she had (a) made an error of moral judgement, (b) had wrongly claimed expenses, (c) had wrongly accused someone of something bad?

Politicians are the authors of their own problems in respect of the current mess. But, the Telegraph should be sued for incitement to criminal activity, if it is demonstrated that they paid for this leaked information (which was due to be published in the autumn anyway). They are also responsible to the public whose moral purity they claim to uphold – arrogating to themselves an unchallengeable priestly power.

Of course, most journalists are honourable people of great integrity trying to make the best of a tough profession. A good press is essential to good democracy – holding the powerful to account and exposing the corrupt. That does not give the exploitative minority the ‘right’ to use corrupt means to make gains from scoops. I can’t help feeling that, despite the awfulness of exploitative MPs, the awfulness of the media coverage is also nauseating.

Will editors and journalists now publish their expenses records (with receipts, of course) and – in the interests of transparency, of course – publish their diaries so that we can see who they have been meeting and by whom they might have been influenced? They might not be ‘public servants’, paid from the public purse, but they wield enormous power and don’t usually disclose their influences.

Don’t hold your breath.