Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why the Telegraph's hubris is bad for British politics

Over Christmas I tried to avoid looking at newspapers as far as possible, feeling I needed a break from the unremitting hideousness of it all. Generally this succeeded quite well - the one exception being the morning I wandered bleary-eyed into the kitchen and was ambushed by the Guardian informing me that Vince Cable had been subjected to Death by Telegraph.

This is the latest in a string of dubious political character assassinations by the Daily Telegraph, and their seeming ability to radically change the course of British politics by engineering 'scandals' is starting to bother me.

With the expenses scandal, at least they were publishing information that was of legitimate public interest – although I never found their constant boasting about what a brilliant public service they were doing all that convincing. The public interest would have surely been better served by making everything they knew public up front. Selectively drip-feeding it over the course of several agonising weeks did a pretty good impression of serving, um, the Telegraph's interests.

Worse than that, they seemed to target MPs based on how much they loathed them rather than the gravity of what they'd done. The Tories, despite being many of the worst offenders, seemed to get off astonishingly lightly, with the bizarre result that come the election, people actually seemed to be voting Tory as a protest against the expenses scandal. Towards the end, the Telegraph really started scraping the barrel – I remember one MP being 'exposed' claiming for bananas, and the local opposition protesting outside his office in banana outfits, regardless of the fact that they turned out to be his intern's lunch expenses. It was at roughly this point that I started to feel like I was in The Thick of It.

Anyway. Fast forward to just after the general election, when the Telegraph apparently decided to take down David Laws. Again, arguably over something of legitimate public interest, but outing someone in that way is not really the classiest of moves. And, thanks to the Telegraph, we now have a Chief Secretary to the Treasury appointed on the basis of party seniority rather than, you know, relevant knowledge and experience. From a public interest perspective, not exactly an open and shut case.

And now Vince. To me, this was not investigative journalism, and it was not the behaviour of a media outlet defending the public interest. They weren't nobly digging to uncover some outrage or misdemeanour. It was a fishing expedition. It's a fairly safe bet that if you lie your way into an MP's surgery by posing as constituency activists and ask a few well-directed questions, they are going to say something scandal-mongers can work with. And that's clearly what they were banking on. Because, let's be honest, they just don't like Vince Cable.

Personally, I have a problem with that. Whatever you think of Vince, his diminished political stature has real implications for what is clearly quite a delicate balance of power within the coalition, at a truly terrifying time in British politics. The Telegraph did that. Just for a laugh. And, if I was trying to systematically undermine any moderating influence the Lib Dems might have on government policy, this is exactly how I'd go about it.

Yes, they got their fingers burned – getting responsibility for the BSkyB takeover handed to Jeremy Hunt was clearly a spectacular own goal. And I really hope they'll be chastened by that experience, because this was a real act of hubris: it's as if they feel they can just take politicians out on a whim whenever they feel like it. The very fact that this particular episode ended up having consequences they didn't intend just highlights the cavalier attitude they must have had to the consequences when embarking on the sting in the first place.

Many and varied as the reasons to hate Rupert Murdoch are, I'm not aware of any media outlet other than the Telegraph trying to interfere in politics in such a brazen way, and succeeding so well. Maybe the public's anger about media megalomaniacs needs to be spread around a bit more?


  1. Excellent post! I've LibDigged it here:

    There's an interesting article in the current Private Eye about the embarrassment caused within the Telegraph by the Cable fiasco. (As usual they came up with a good title: "Cable and witless"!) Apparently the senior executive in charge of coordinating the anti-Murdoch campaign with other papers almost resigned. And the leaker of the explosive info about Vince is going to get a cushy job at News International...

  2. Turns out the Private Eye article is available on their website here: