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Parliamentary expenses scandal: a media 'blood fest'?

Text by Tony TODD

Latest update : 2009-05-23

For two weeks Britain's The Daily Telegraph has been drip-feeding the British public with details of outrageous and bizarre expense claims made by the country's lawmakers. The press are having a field day and parliament is feeling the strain.

"This blood fest has got to stop," said since-suspended UK Justice Minister Shahid Malik after details of his parliamentary expenses were revealed in The Daily Telegraph.


And a blood fest it most certainly is. The British media is in full frenzy.


The biggest scalp - to date - was that of Michael Martin, Speaker of the House of Commons, who resigned due to criticism of the way he had handled the scandal.


The Speaker is responsible for members’ conduct in the House of Commons - and Martin is the first to be ousted in more than 300 years.


Since the Telegraph began drip-feeding the outrageous and often bizarre expense claims made by law-makers, parliament, the "oldest gentleman's club in Britain", has been brought to a grinding halt.


Three-quarters of the right-leaning Telegraph's international edition on Thursday May 21 was devoted to the issue. Details included phantom mortgage repayments, insurance mysteries and the announcement that Sir Peter Viggers, a senior Conservative, will step down at the next election after it was revealed he had claimed £1,634 for a floating duck house.


So far, the newspaper has published lurid allegations of misconduct by 19 Labour MPs – including the Prime Minister, 19 Conservatives, six Liberal Democrats and two Sinn Fein MPs. 


It has been known for a long time that the self-regulated parliamentary expenses system was open to abuse.


After a High Court ruling last year based on the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the House of Commons said it would publish MPs' expenses in July 2009, with certain "intrusive" details held back. 


But an unnamed "businessman" sold disks containing all the grizzly details to the Telegraph - and since May 8 the paper has been publishing a daily dose of parliamentary outrages.

Newspaper sales

There is nothing like a red-faced politician to stir righteous indignation and make that breakfast cup of tea taste better while you flick through the morning's paper.

Britons like their newspapers and have a voracious appetite for scandal. And newspapers like to feed this appetite. After all, it drives up sales.


On May 20, 11 days into the scandal, The Guardian reported that the Telegraph's sales had surged by 60,000 a day.


Public interest in the debate was such that the BBC's flagship Question Time on May 14 enjoyed its highest viewing figures in 30 years - 3.8 million tuned in for the debate on expenses.


Even bankers can take comfort from the fact that the spotlight has been taken off them and their own much-reported appetite for huge bonuses at a time of grave economic crisis, for the time being at least.

Parliamentary reform

But The Economist makes the point that an accountable parliamentary system with clear moral authority is essential if the bigger issues are to be tackled correctly, calling for a measured move towards constitutional reform, rather than a snap election, in response. 


"Better to save that great accounting for a time when voters care about something bigger than the dodgy expenses of some errant MPs," the leading article said.


The Guardian ran a four-page pull-out titled "A New Politics: Towards a blueprint for reforming government".


The pull-out’s leading article says that simply fixing the expenses system is not enough to clean up parliament and that broad and far-reaching constitutional reform is required. 


"It took the Founding Fathers of the United States four months to agree their constitution," it reads. "Mr Brown has longer than that. He has a year in which to cement his place in history as a great reformer or as a great political failure."


The left-leaning broadsheet's columnists go on to suggest ways in which this reform might take shape.


Gary Younge calls for the final abolition of the Monarchy and Jonathan Freedland says parliament needs a fully elected House of Lords (rather than a house full of party favourites).


Martin Kettle  says MPs need to be given more power and be a bigger check on the executive, citing the decision to go to war in Iraq, adding: "MPs should stop being sheep and start being watchdogs."

Date created : 2009-05-22