Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Expenses Row

Last week the Telegraph performed an important public service by publishing details of British M.P.'s expense claims, pre-empting the publication of the efited version that Parliament was going to produce. For this, the paper should be applauded, as it has taken a risk and there is a suggestion that legal action may be taken.

In that first set of reports, the Telegraph concentrated on claims made by the Labour government (1). This could be justified, as the actions of the government are inherently of greater interest than the actions of the opposition. This week, the newspaper has published details of the Conservative claims (2).

While the Telegraph has been at pains to point out it is being even-handed, I think it is showing clear bias. First of all, the publication of the Labour parties claims first - though arguably justified - could equally be a deliberate move to make sure Labour are the ones most visible in the spotlight, and receive the greatest amount of - entirely deserved - public opprobrium. The names published after the first week blur. People will remember the names of Labour M.P.s and that they are linked with the scandal, whereas the Tories will just be more politicians grafting for all they're worth.

Second, there is a difference in the way that the expenses relating to the Tories are being presented. While the Telegraph is publishing details that will make the conservatives squirm, David Cameron is being shielded - perhaps dishonestly. While Gordon Brown was roasted over his (apparently legitimate) payments to his brother, the reporting on Cameron is characterised by vagueness. We're told:
Mr Cameron has claimed only for mortgage interest and utility bills on his Oxfordshire constituency cottage. Some years, his Parliamentary expense records are only 20 pages long – compared with expenses claims of more than 90 pages for some of his colleagues. (3)
One can't help but wonder how much a 'cottage' in Chipping Norton might cost, and how much the tax payer might be paying out to service the loan. It is within the rules, obviously, but the lack of hard data suggests that Mr Cameron is getting the soft treatment.

And what about the next line, where we can take comfort in the fact that his expense claims are "only 20 pages long" in some years. Some years? What about the other years? Was it 30 pages long? 50? And if M.P.s are lodging claims of 90 pages, why aren't they being named? Two possible reasons - because they're claims were justified (M.P.s from the further flung parts of Britain), or because they were Tories and the Telegraph didn't want to draw attention to that annoying fact?

And why focus on the number of pages in his expenses claim - a meaningless measurement - than giving us a straightforward figure, straight away?

Because, of course, they don't want to admit that Cameron is no better than the rest of them. Further on, we're given some figures:

Mr Cameron claimed more than £1,700 a month in mortgage interest during two of the years covered by Parliamentary records.

In total, Mr Cameron has claimed £82,450 towards the cost of his second home over the past four years. In the 2004-05 financial year, he claimed the maximum allowance ... (4)
But by this point, a lot of people will have stopped reading and even those that do will have received the impression that David Cameron is squeaky clean - just like those reading reading about Brown's payments to his brother will have been lead to think that there was something untoward going on, due to thespin put on the facts by the Telegraph.

Even in admitting that Cameron has been as busy with his claims as his colleagues, the Telegraph can't resist trying to put him forward as Mr Honest. The section quoted immediately above continues:
... but during 2007-08, he was only the 406th highest-claiming MP.

Mr Cameron’s personal claims are likely to put him in a strong position to root out problems uncovered among other Conservative MPs. (5)

That is opinion, being presented as fact in the reportage section of the Telegraph, not in the leader or the op-ed pages. It's a pathetic lapse of journalism and it is that sort of clumsy attempt to spin this cluster-fuck of corruption to Cameron's advantage that makes the Telegraph's pontificating about honesty, openess and the public good, disingenuous. Cameron might - or might not - be a decent, upstanding fellow, but the Telegraph is trying to create this idea in the minds of its readers.

Immediately afterwards, comes a shot at Gordon Brown:

His simple claims stand in contrast to those of Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister. Mr Brown switched the property on which he claims his allowance after becoming Prime Minister.

Last week, he repaid a £150 plumbing bill after incorrectly claiming for it twice. His brother also organised a cleaner for his London flat between 2004 and 2006. (6)

There is nothing in there that the Telegraph has highlighted as untoward, and repeating it again is drumming home the message - "Brown gave his brother money, Brown calimed twice for stuff, Brown's a flipper." Again, the Telegraph is manipulating its readers, not reporting facts.

Contrast that with the report on Brown's claims made in the Telegraph a few days earlier (7). The report kicked off with a headline screaming "Gordon Brown’s house swap that let him claim thousands." The Cameron story was headed up, "David Cameron limits claims to mortgage and utilities." Do you notice a slight difference in tone there?

The sub-headings go even further. We're informed that "Gordon Brown used his Parliamentary allowances to boost his expenses claims by switching his designated second home shortly before he moved into Downing Street upon becoming Prime Minister," which suggests something murky is afoot, but apparently, "David Cameron, the Conservative leader, has some of the most straightforward expense claims of any member of the shadow Cabinet."

Note the qualifiers there, by the way, "most straightforward" and "of the Shadow cabinet." "Straightforward" doesn't mean "smallest" "honest," or "justifed." "Of the shadow cabinet" might indicate he fairs rather badly compared to other MPs. Who knows? Not us, based on the mealy-mouthed coverage in the Telegraph.

Meanwhile, we're breathlessly informed about the intimate details of Brown's claims. This is fairly standard propoganda Tsunamai tactics - there isn't anything much amiss with Brown's claims, so simply go for the quantitiative approach and tell us how much he's billing us for, to make it seem bad. We get told we paid for his toilet to be unblocked, for goodness sake. While it is admitted that - unlike David Cameron - Brown "did not claim mort­gage interest payments on the Fife home" the Telegraph is desperate to drum up some suggestion of impropriety. So we get the payments to his brother - deliberately phrased as payments to "his brother, Andrew, a high-flying executive ... for “cleaning services”," which make it sound disingenuous, as if Andrew Brown was the one doing the cleaning (8).

The main point of the article is that Brown billed the tax payer for a London flat and then 'flipped' his claim to his constituency home. It is a smoke and mirror routine - once the facts are clear, it is innocuous. Brown made the change just before becoming Prime Minister. Prior to that, he'd claimed for a second home in London, rather than living at the official Chancellor's residence at Numer 11 Downing Street. Brown, as Chancellor, didn't live at Number 11, because it was occupied by Tony Blair, who lived in the more spacious Number 11. Brown continued the practice and didn't physically move into the Chancellor's residence until he became Prime Minister (9).

This accounts for Brown's refusal to take advantage of the 'grace and favour' flat he was entiteled to - Tony Blair was living in it - and the whole Telegraph case on his second home claim collapses once that's made clear. Of course, the Telegraph doesn't bother to mention that small circumstance. Why spoil a good beat up?

1 - "Cabinet MP's expenses," index of different articles relating to the claims made by ministers and ex-ministers, viewed 13th of May, 2009. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/cabinet-expenses/)
2 - "Conservative MP's expenses," index of different articles relating to the claims made by Conservative M.P.s and ex-M.P.s, viewed 13th of May, 2009. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/conservative-mps-expenses/)
3 - "David Cameron limits claims to mortgage and utilities: MPs expenses," by Robert Winnett, published in The Telegraph, 11th of May, 2009. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/5305130/David-Cameron-limits-claims-to-mortgage-and-utilities-MPs-expenses.html)
4 -
ibid.
5 -
ibid.
6 -
ibid.
7 - "MPs' expenses: Gordon Brown’s house swap that let him claim thousands," by Rosa Price and Holly Watt, published in The Telegraph, 8th of May, 2009. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/5293446/MPs-expenses-Gordon-Browns-house-swap-that-let-him-claim-thousands.html)
8 - The headlines and extracts quoted in this paragraph are drawn from the articles identified in #3 and #7, above.
9 - As per the wikipedia article, "11 Downing Street," viewed on 13th of May, 2009. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/11_Downing_Street)

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