Monday, 31 May 2010

Laws law

Journalism has its first scalp of the new government. Inside 17 days. A new personal best. Should we be proud?

Have we, once again, brought power to heel with our watchdoggery? Stood firm in defence of the honest man and woman?

Or has journalism, true to type, proven its inability to understand its civic purpose? That the point of journalists' scrutiny is to improve the way we govern ourselves? Without that, it is just self-regarding noise.

There's a real dilemma at the heart of this and we journalists should, at the very least, recognize that. Perhaps even, whisper it quietly, be prepared to try to resolve it. As things are, we excuse in ourselves behaviour we would accept in no other institution - a behaviour that is at best arrogant, at worst delinquent.

You don't have to take sides or be soft on politicians to have been dismayed by the assertions of some in the press that, in spite of David Laws' explanation of his actions in the light of the Telegraph's disclosures, they knew what it was really all about. What was really going on in the former minister's mind.

'Sobvious innit. MP = greedy. Snouts, Trough, Boots. Fill. Nothing's changed, they're all as bad as each other. Bad as the last lot. Chuck 'em all out.

Thus the Sun: Mr Laws "channeled more than £40,000 of taxpayers' money to his long term partner" - the verb, intriguingly upgraded at the subbing stage; the original story had the more bland 'paid' ... as you can see from the url.

Thus the Mirror: a simple expenses scandal - his apology groveling (oh, come on ... you can do better than that: surely it was at the very least 'sniveling' ....)

And thus Barbara Ellen in the Observer ... who you might have thought should have known better.

Don't we - in the interests of both scrutiny and accuracy - have to begin with David Law's own explanation of why he did what he did? If we can disprove it through proper scrutiny .. fine. But if we simply dismiss it - because we really know - we also have to explain why one of the cleverest and most economically astute men in the country, let alone Parliament, didn't arrange his affairs to cash in to the max. Something he could have done entirely within the rules both as they were then and as they are now.

And this matters. Matters way beyond the detail of this one story.

It's likely - most sensible commentators seem to agree - that that the Laws affair is about judgment distorted not greed. That what we've learned about a (former) cabinet minister is that people - even those in positions of leadership - do daft things for complex reasons. Usually because they understand themselves less than they understand anything else.

Yet that lazy default - "we know they're all on the make" - is doubly dangerous; it looks like scrutiny without being anything of the kind. And it damages our politics, if for no other reason than that it reduces our various publics' understandings to yet another pointless, misleading binary; venal or honest ... with the centre of gravity very definitely on the venal side.

There is a genuine dilemma around disclosure and its effects.

As Roy Greenslade writes:

"The press exists to reveal what those in power seek to keep secret. The raison d'ĂȘtre of journalists is disclosure."

And it's impossible to argue that having bought the information - part of that CD whose contents it began publishing just over a year ago - the Telegraph should not have revealed what they had. And the measured language of its first report can't be faulted.

But is it enough to say that "disclosure" is all? That our responsibilities as journalists end once the revelation has been made? Don't we also - as people with pride in our craft - have the responsibility to make sure that disclosure is scrutinised in ways that are both rigorous and accurate. That we don't hunt scalps just for the sake of it or as means of validating our own purpose in life?

The Guardan's Michael White goes further:

"I do not think the public interest has been well served
by the
Telegraph exposé. Laws is a clever, serious fellow who could have
opted for a life of idle self-amusement but plunged in public life
where dreadful things can happen.

So I regret his going and hope
Telegraph's more thoughtful readers are as unimpressed as I am.
Perhaps the newspapers really are losing the plot in their - our -
battle to retain sales share."

Whether it's about the business of sales share alone, I'm not so sure. There's something so deeply ingrained in the culture of British journalism that the alternative, thinking whether the way in which we treat disclosures like the Telegraph's is proportionate, is just not an option.

So we've got our £40,000 back ... at what cost we will only know when or if the £160bn debt mountain is finally climbed.

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