The bigger MP scandal story

I don’t think the U.K. scandal around MPs skimming tax dollars through their expenses has been getting nearly enough coverage here in the U.S. That’s not just because it is already causing political upheaval over there. It is also because this storm will surely lead to greater transparency and oversight of legislative expenses and actions there — and we will have a lot to learn about how to force the same to happen here.

I believe that in the new ecosystem of news that will replace the old singular, centralized companies and products, government transparency will have to play a big part. We, the people, will demand that the actions and information of government be searchable and linkable. When that happens, there will be millions more watchful eyes on government, finding stories that journalists of many stripes can then report.

The MP scandal in Britain is opening up a crack in the wall around Parliament, a start in an inexorable trend toward transparency, and is causing a profound discussion about changing government. If we – in media and blogs – were paying more attention to it over here, I believe – well, hope – that it would spark more discussion we must have about transparency and remake government.

I think it would also cause a journalistic discussion about how the Telegraph has made a mark with this story and how data is (are) news.

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  • PXLated

    Or will it all be nothing but bluster as it usually is here. Once the bluster and resulting headlines die down a little the press looses interest and moves on to the next, new, shiny headline. For real transparency and change they need to dog it until it’s absolutely dead because real change has taken place. Change in govt/politics is usually an illusion.

  • http://www.mcnultymedia.co.uk Ian McNulty

    Thought you might like to know I name-checked one of your Guardian seminar videos ‘The future for web publishers’ yesterday on one of the very same discussion threads you refer to here A new politics: Make way for modern media

    Unfortunately I neglected to leave a space after the link so it isn’t click able (dooh!) but it doesn’t matter because the Guardian seems to store its content in such a way that articles by Guardian journalists are crawled by Google, but readers’ comments are completely ignored!

    If I paraphrase your second par, this issue relates directly to the topic of your previous post ,The journalism bubble.

    We, the people, will demand that the readers’ comments in the Guardian be searchable and linkable in the same way journalists’ articles are. When that happens, there will be millions more watchful eyes on the media and government, finding stories that journalists of many stripes can then report.

    I’ve been banging on about this for months on the Guardian forums and even tried emailing Guardian editors and journalists direct, but just get the bum’s rush. As you are a Guardian columnist yourself I’m wondering if you’d have a better chance of getting the message through?

  • http://blog.appgifs.org.uk/ David Worsfold

    One of the interesting factors in this is the huge boost to the Daily Telegraph’s print circulation as well as its web traffic. It shows that the right content in print will still sell.

    • http://www.mcnultymedia.co.uk Ian McNulty

      True. True. And it also proves how much the public have an appetite for good old-fashioned investigative journalism as opposed to the Flat-Earth churnalism, PR generated pseudo-news and narrow-minded ignorance passing-off as serious analysis that seems to have become the majority of the UK’s “quality” press and broadcast journalism output over the past couple of decades.

    • http://spalpeen.co.uk Conrad

      Even so, I suspect a lot of people were very frustrated with how the Telegraph revealed the story. One story a day, for over a week? Eh. That’s a very short term way of thinking about the story, especially considering it promoted the paper which is going to continue to lose readership anyway. Plus, I’d put a lot of money of very few extra young people picking up the paper because of this story.

      I’d say a far more effective method would have been to create a branded website that revealed all the information about MPs expenses at once. Similar to a site like TheyWorkForYou.com, the site could have been billed as THE location for MPs expenses (or, more generally, corruption of politicians). It may not have got the short term gain in paper sales, but as long as it was well maintained, it could have resulted in a lot more traffic for the story in the long term.

      They can still do this of course.

      • http://www.mcnultymedia.co.uk Ian McNulty

        Good point. In fact I was just thinking something similar myself this morning whilst perusing the latest Telegraph headlines on the news stand at Tesco. Was I thinking about buying the paper? Of course not. These days, even fish and chip shops can’t be bothered with them.

        Instead I was thinking about Linus’s Law: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” – and how much more useful it would have been if the contents of the CD had been crowdsourced online for the many thousands of citizen journalists to trawl through, rather than just a handful of Telegraph staffers.

        But I think the main reason this story has had so much impact is precisely because it’s been put out on the old media channels. What’s left of our traditional newspaper and broadcasting industry is still largely hidebound in the old push-media traditions of plagiarising stories straight from the wires and other newspapers rather than doing the more difficult job of finding fresh stories for themselves. So my guess is that this story will be a kind of swan song for the old media. Their greatest and most heroic victory won in the final few moment before the ship went down.

        (PS. Have just been looking at your blog. I was at Hull myself in the 60s studying Physics. Give my love to Cranbrook Avenue!)

  • http://timholmes.blogspot.com/2009/01/amazon-of-media-or-itunes.html Tim Holmes

    @David Worsfold, @Ian McNulty – good points but don’t you think it is significant that the source was not a journalist? Lobby correspondents and political editors *must* have had wind of this kind of thing for a long time, yet there has been nothing.

    “Access” is such a valuable commodity now, and so strictly controlled, that specialist reporters seem to be deterred from asking the awkward questions. In a very different context this was raised last night on Talk Sport radio , when Danny Kelly (a distinguished magazine journalist), Stan Collymore (who has suffered at the hands of the media) and Bobby Gould (a long-time football manager adept at dealing with the media) all made points about how cosy football reporting is – Gould was particularly perceptive about how the pack mentality discourages journalists from taking a different angle.

    • http://www.mcnultymedia.co.uk Ian McNulty

      @Tim Holmes – I completely agree. It is significant that the source wasn’t a journalist, but then most genuine sources aren’t. Deep Throat being just one example. I’d go further and say that if the source of a story is other journalists then would be a prime example of the pack mentality at work and the kind of me-too churnalism that has brought a once honourable profession to its knees.

      “Most journalists share the same skills sets and the same approaches to stories, seek out the same sources, ask similar questions, and produce relatively similar stories…. ” said Robert Picard said in Jeff’s previous post. By breaking our vows of poverty, allowing our product to be commoditised and prostituting ourselves to the highest bidder, we have essentially killed the goose that laid the golden egg. Now the brown stuff has hit the revolving thing, journalism is in the midst of a cycle of grief, the first stage of which is denial and an attempt to blame everyone else except ourselves.

  • http://spalpeen.co.uk Conrad

    Funnily enough, one of the motivations behind the journalist that forced this issue through (Heather Brooke, who won a High Court case against the House of Commons for the full disclosure of MPs’ second homes allowances) was that in the United States, Senators and Congressmen/women already have to reveal their itemised receipts. So when she saw that MPs wouldn’t have to do the same (they originally only had to reveal broad ranging categorised numbers for their expenses), she took up the fight.

    We’re starting to see peeks of the reversal of Freedom of Information that you were talking about: for example the Conservatives are now publishing every expense claim in real time, and several Labour politicians are doing the same on their personal sites.

    More on Heather Brooke: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/may/15/mps-expenses-heather-brooke-foi

    • http://www.mcnultymedia.co.uk Ian McNulty

      @Conrad

      Good call. Well worth reading.

      “I’ve always been in love with old-style investigative journalism.”

      “This is the kind of journalism I like doing. But it’s almost impossible in this country.”

      Here is a lady worthy of the title “The Honourable”.

      What a pity that so many of those who currently hold that title aren’t.

  • http://www.futureofprint.blogspot.com Ian Walthew

    It may not be getting much coverage in the U.S.A?

    Perhaps, but the IHT, available in the U.S.A has been following the story closely and played it front page, above the fold yesterday.

    Rather depends on what one reads.

  • http://www.hannahflynn.wordpress.com Hannah Flynn

    A positive point for the US media which hasn’t had much coverage, is that the MP expenses scandle has come to light after a long row over the Freedom of Information Act. Passed in 2005 this piece of legislation allows people to request information from public bodies, one of the few exemptions has been MPs expenses with neither of the two leading political parties being willing to concede on the issue. Yes, the ‘John Lewis list’ was published but only after a fight and the current release of information, legal or not, has been a long time coming. Basically, the take home point is that the Freedom of Information Act was passed due to the access the public have to information on politicians in the US. In the UK the US is deemed to have more transparency.

  • J

    Jeff – if you get a chance, check out guido fawkes hte blogger. Have you heard of him? he has massive power over here in the uk.

  • http://www.david-campbell.org David Campbell

    @Conrad has the key point here. As much as many want to see this as a victory for The Daily Telegraph’s journalism, in fact they have been engaged in check book journalism more than anything else.

    This story was made possible by an independent investigative journalist working for 5 years. The details in http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/may/15/mps-expenses-heather-brooke-foi warrant close reading.

    What the Telegraph did was likely buy the fruits of Heather Brooke’s labours through a mole in the House of Commons who provided the CD containing all the MPs expense details, details that were being slowly readied for public release.

    So this story is a victory for journalism rather than newspapers per se; and that is significant as we reflect on the new media economy.

    • http://www.mcnultymedia.co.uk Ian McNulty

      @David Campbell says:

      Just wanted to say I second that wholeheartedly. The more I think about it the more I think Heather Brooke is a hero, a role model for us all and a name for the history books, outstripping Woodward and Bernstein by a many a mile. They, after all, were only doing what they were paid to do. But Heather did it all on her own. I think it’s wonderful she got her wish and became the kind of journalist and person she always wanted to be. And it shows just how much one individual can really make a difference.

      But the more I admire Heather the more I find myself sickened by the way all the other comfortably-kept journalists are now falling over themselves to grab the credit and reap the rewards. Where were they in the five-long-years Helen was fighting this battle on her own?

      As Heather says, it was her attempt “to get back into serious reporting”. She’s succeeded in doing that with knobs on. Hopefully she’ll be honoured at all the awards ceremonies for the next five years and be offered a department in a national newspaper, broadcaster or leading university to run as she pleases. We live in hope!

    • Sam C

      Heather Brooke certainly kicked this off and deserves her place in history. But the Telegraph’s cheque book did something that Heather couldn’t do through the courts and using the FoI law: it got the unexpurgated raw info on the expenses, what appears to be a straight download of the records. The expenses were going to be edited before their official FoI release, and thick black lines would have hidden most of the crucial information. As Heather said to the Guardian: “I wanted the detail. That’s where you find the truth.”.

      Remember that phrase. That should be in a textbook for investigative journalists.

      Part of that detail is which addresses claims were made on, so the dodgy couple who had two second homes and no primary home could be identified. It’s identifying what specific items the MPs were stealing money for, so they weren’t labelled as “household expenses” or nonsense like that.

      Just one grumble about American journos: for pity’s sake, they’re not “tax dollars”, we don’t use dollars in the UK. You wouldn’t like it if somebody started talking about the US Government’s “tax pesos”, would you?

  • William Hoos

    If we are really wondering why something isn’t getting enough news coverage, there is a great 5 minute TED video by Alisa Miller

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/alisa_miller_shares_the_news_about_the_news.html

  • Lyn Wojtulewicz

    As a British citizen I can assure you that Britain is in uproar over this and we are not going to take this lying down. It is appauling how Members of Parliament who we put our trust in to run the country in our best interest can have double standards when it comes to themselves. The general concencus of oppinion is that this is no different to benefit/tax fraud and should be punished in the same way. It is not good enough that they should only stand down and hope it all goes away after the press has lost interest. They should be made to pay every penny back and then be charged for committing tax fraud which is what it is. This is one trick they will not get away with if the British public have anything to do with it and I agree that the press should carry on publishing the opinions of members of the public (THeir voters) who put them in this position.

    This senario has only led us to wonder what is happening in Local Government where even more money is wasted and how many fiddles are going on within those four walls? It’s time for a complete shake up of the whole system. I can’t believe the Government can dictate to us the public that we should tighten our belts because of the present economic climate and then totally do the opposite themselves. No wonder they wanted us to save more money so that they had more to spend on themselves.