Daily Archives: 23 May 2009

Jo Swinson and The Telegraph: complaints, complaints, complaints

Thanks a lot to everyone for all the positive feedback I’ve had about my article this morning. By happenstance, Alix Mortimer has just asked:

Fucking disgusting. Can we get them on article 1 (accuracy) of the PCC code?

The answer, at least in my view, is yes, which is why I’ve just spent the last couple of hours writing letters of complaint to the Telegraph, the Guardian and the BBC. And I would ask you to do the same.

First off, the Telegraph. You can contact them via this page (under “What does your enquiry relate to?” select “Editorial”). My letter reads as follows:

Dear Mr Lewis,

With regards to your article “Tooth flosser, eyeliner and 29p dusters for the makeover queen” (page 6 of Daily Telegraph #47,888, Thursday 21 May 2009):

First of all, I would like to remind you of the Press Complaints Commission’s Code of Practice – of which the Daily Telegraph professes to follow:

“Accuracy

“i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

“ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.”

The aforementioned article contains a number of misleading statements. A superficial reading of the article would lead the casual reader to assume that the record of Jo Swinson MP’s expenses claims demonstrate that she had claimed for makeup and dusters. However, a more careful reading reveals the following information:

1 – that although receipts containing those items had been submitted, there is no actual evidence that these specific items had been claimed for. Indeed, this claim is explicitly denied by Jo Swinson herself and no evidence has been brought forward to give us cause to doubt this whatsoever.

2 – furthermore, that in at least one case the items which had been claimed for were clearly marked by an asterisk. In the case of the eyeliner and dusters this was not the case.

3 – the claim that Jo Swinson is “known in Westminster for the attention she pays to her appearance” is entirely unsubstantiated and innuendo-laden. There is nothing remarkable about a Member of Parliament not wishing to look unkempt; indeed they would be open to criticism if they did so.

4 – the headline epithet “makeover queen” is equally unsubstantiated. No-one appears to have called Jo Swinson this apart from the article’s author, Rosa Prince, herself.

5 – the page design is clearly intended to convey the idea that Jo Swinson has had numerous “makeovers” – yet the photographs provided are merely pictures of her looking slightly different over a period of eight years.

The article, ostensibly about MPs’ expenses, is clearly intended to convey the impression that Jo Swinson has been buying makeup and charging taxpayers. Given that the article itself contains no evidence whatsover to indicate that this might be the case, the article is certainly misleading. Including a denial by Jo Swinson does not go anywhere near to correcting this as it works on the “no smoke without fire principle.” Furthermore, nowhere in the article do you state Jo Swinson’s impeccable record in calling for MPs’ expenses to be published and for the system to be reformed.

The ultimate effect of this article is to smear an MP with a strong track record of reform with the same brush as some of the worst offenders. This is a complete distortion.

I must ask you to publish a retraction of the article, making it clear that there is no evidence that Jo Swinson MP has claimed the cost of her makeup on expenses. If I do not receive a response from you within seven days I will take the matter further with the Press Complaints Commission.

Yours sincerely,

James Graham

The BBC’s contact page is slightly harder to find, but can be accessed here. I wrote them the following:

jo090520bbcI am writing with regard to your section on MPs expenses, and specifically your coverage of Jo Swinson MP’s alleged claims (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8047390.stm#swinson_jo).

I have already written to the Telegraph about this story (see below). Your article goes significantly further than the Telegraph article. The Telegraph at all times are careful not to actually claim that Jo Swinson MP claimed cosmetics on expenses, merely that cosmetics had appeared on receipts that had been submitted to the Fees Office (nonetheless, I would still contest that this is highly misleading – and almost certainly mislead you).

By contrast, the BBC article baldly asserts – without any substantiation whatsoever – “The Dumbartonshire [sic] East MP, the youngest in the Commons, put a series of small claims on expenses, including eyeliner, a £19.10 “tooth flosser” and 29p dusters.”

It is wholly unacceptable of the BBC to republish – and indeed embellish – claims made by a commercial newspaper without seeking to substantiate them first. This isn’t journalism, this is engaging in a game of Chinese whispers. I would therefore ask that you publish a retraction to this story, together with an apology to Jo Swinson.

If I do not hear from you within seven days, I will take this matter further with the BBC Trust.

Yours faithfully,

James Graham

PS As an aside, I should point out that Jo Swinson’s constituency is called East Dunbartonshire and that photograph you are illustrating this story with is of Alan Beith and Diane Maddock.

Finally, the Guardian are the easiest to contact of all. The Reader’s Editor page is here. I wrote them the following:

Dear Ms Butterworth,

I am writing with regard to your table on page 6 of the Guardian dated 23 May 2009. On this you include a section “cheapest claims – claims that Britain mocked”. The first item you list is “Jo Swinson: Cosmetics included in her receipts. Because she’s worth it.”

In doing so, the Guardian repeats a misleading slur that was published in the Telegraph on Thursday 21 May. On careful reading, the Telegraph article does not accuse Jo Swinson MP of claiming cosmetics on expenses, provides no evidence whatsoever to indicate that she had and the fact that she might have done has been explicitly denied by Jo Swinson herself (link). It is therefore a non-story and I have written to the editor of the Telegraph calling for him to retract it (see below).

I note that the Guardian has chosen its words in an equally selective manner, merely saying that the cosmetics were ‘included in her receipts’ not that they were actually claimed for. Unlike the Telegraph however, you do not even allow Jo Swinson a right to reply.

That the Guardian should choose to pilliory a female MP for the crime of purchasing cosmetics is particularly galling. I was under the impression that the Guardian regarded itself as a champion of feminist causes. It is certainly tempting to join in with the anti-politics throng at the moment, but that does not mean accepting every article published by the Telegraph is accurate or free of pursuing a regressive political agenda; it certainly does not mean you have to uncritically go along with explicit misogyny.

I am writing to request that you issue a retraction of this report and an apology to Jo Swinson. If I do not get a response within the next seven days, I will take this matter up with the Press Complaints Commission.

Yours sincerely,

James Graham

While I hope reprinting these letters here will be useful, if you complain please do so in your own words – it will be much more effective that way.

As an aside, the Telegraph appear to have completely lost the plot. Dizzy reports:

Nadine Dorries has seen the blog part of her website instantly taken down after she made allegations against the owners of the Telegraph Group, Sir David Barclay and Sir Frederick Barclay.

Lawyers acting for the Barclay brothers, Withers, instructed the takedown to Acidity via mail last night, citing the Acceptable User Policy. The takedown will be bolstered by the Godfrey vs Demon precendent, where an order can be made and it will be done instantly.

This is quite remarkable behaviour. It is one of the few things they could have done to make me feel even a twinge of sympathy for Nadine Dorries. Furthermore, this isn’t just a nasty bit of bullying by a precious publisher to a blogger, but to a high profile (some would argue over-exposed) MP. This is going to be big news tomorrow.

What an utterly stupid act of fuckwittery.

Parliament, The Telegraph and Jo Swinson

winner-best-ld-blog-postOne of the advantages of being effectively out of action for the past month is that because I haven’t been able to even attempt to cover the expenses row, blow-by-blow, I can now afford to take a somewhat wider view. It has been a fascinating couple of weeks, revealing not just how Parliament works but how the media does too.

Were the Telegraph right to publish these expenses details given the fact that they were due to be published this summer anyway? On balance, I’m afraid I think they were. To start with, I am deeply sceptical that the fees office had any intention of actually publishing in July. They’ve been buying time for literally years now and I have no doubt they would have sought even more time then. Secondly, it was clear that they were falling over themselves to be helpful to MPs with embarrassing claims they wanted to cover up. By fighting the FOI requests every step of the way, ultimately the Parliamentary authorities have made the problem worse. To that extent then, the House of Commons as collective body, deserves everything it is getting right now.

But the problem with the data being in the hands of a single newspaper is that everything we get is transmitted via its own idiosyncratic political position. And the problem with this being an example of chequebook journalism, as opposed to the investigative journalism of people like Heather Brooke, is that the paper has to make good on its investment – and that means extending the coverage and the ramping up the salaciousness of it as much as possible.

In terms of the Telegraph’s politics, it has always and always will be the Conservative Party in print. They couldn’t have got away with just publishing the Labour and Lib Dem expenses details, but it is interesting how they have portrayed the Tory ones. The types of claim broadly fit into three categories. The first, which the Labour MPs exposed tend to fit into, are about mortgages, “flipping” and capital gains. They played the system to make personal profit. The second, which the Conservative MPs exposed tend to fit into, are about moats, duck islands and country piles. Literally, they fit into a different class. The third, which the Lib Dem MPs exposed tend to fit into, are about using the system to get the odd perk, be it a trouser press, an orthopedic chair or a packet of chocolate Hob Nobs.

They category that has captured the public imagination has been the second one. Hogg’s moat has achieved iconic status within just a few days. Yet the Telegraph has conspiciously attempted to portray all three as morally equivalent at all times. It held off publishing the details of Tory MPs for as long as possible, meaning that when they were exposed, Labour had already been buffetted for the previous five days.

I happen to think the house flipping and profiteering is as bad as the showering of cash onto country estates, but the third category most certainly is not. There is no question that the Conservatives have an image problem here and the Telegraph and the Tory press have done all that they can to mitigate this. They have been falling over themselves to portray Cameron’s leadership on the issue as dynamic and forthright despite the fact that, when you look at it in detail, it turns out he isn’t particularly interested in reform at all. He insists that his richer MPs must buy themselves out of the hole they’ve dug themselves but is keen for MPs to be able to continue to profiteer via the ACA. He wants a snap general election, something which would have the effect of scapegoating a handful of MPs in marginal constituencies whilst giving the ones in safe seats renewed terms of office.

A general election now, with the Tories still insisting that (aside from a bit of fiddling), the status quo must prevail, would be a white wash. Yet this is the Telegraph line, too. Fortunately, the Telegraph can’t entirely have its own way and the debacle has revived calls for real democratic reform. It may yet turn out that they have created a monster that they can’t actually control. We can hope.

But the other side that irritates me is the salaciousness of it all. It has started to stop resembling journalism and to start looking somewhat more like expenses porn, designed to titilate rather than inform. What has developed out of this debate over the past couple of weeks is a mood that any expense claim is bad. This is deeply pernicious. Clearly an inner London MP does not need to furnish a second home, but an MP representing a constituency further afield must (this is one of the reasons why I’m sceptical of the calls to scrap the expenses system altogether and replace it with an increased salary – great if you are a single man and have no real intention of representing your constituents, hard cheese if you aren’t). Are we really going to get precious about someone having a telly in their second home? The agenda of the Telegraph has been to convince you that yes, yes you should.

And finally, there is the innuendo. This is the single worst aspect of the Telegraph coverage. Many of the stories over the past couple of weeks have been rooted in the fact that the Telegraph have been able to get away with “X submitted a receipt which included Y” – thus implying that X claimed for Y whilst knowing that if they did say that they would be open to libel. Yet the suggestion is out there and before you can blink, half a dozen other media agencies are repeating the claim as a matter of public record. A lot of the stories they have covered have turned out to reveal nothing more than minor errors in paperwork, but that hasn’t stopped them from smearing everyone with the same brush.

The print version of the Telegraph article on Jo Swinson

The single worst example of the Telegraph coverage can be found in their story about Jo Swinson this week (declaration: Jo is a friend of mine, but I don’t accept this makes a word of what I have to say any less true). The online version of this story has been sanitised by the online editors, who were presumably too ashamed to publish the print version unchanged. The print version has the headline: “Tooth flosser, eyeliner and 29p dusters for the makeover queen” and contains no less than nine seperate photographs of Jo taken at various stages over the last eight years.

There are so many dreadful aspects of this story, I don’t know where to start. Let’s start with the misogyny. What Jo is being attacked for here is for wearing makeup. The epithet “makeover queen” implies someone who has had a lot of makeovers, yet Jo has never appeared in one of those articles about MPs getting glammed up or anything like that and doesn’t do the daytime television circuit. The article states that Jo is “known in Westminster for the attention she pays to her appearance” yet I can find no media story which has remarked on this before this piece. Google “Jo Swinson” and what you find are lots of stories about her campaigns against excessive packaging, winning local constituency battles such as the one to stop a new prison being named after one of her local towns and the leading role she has played in fighting for Parliament to be more accessible and transparent. Is she a slob? Hardly, but since when did not being one become worthy of criticism?

Secondly, the article is complete, unmitigated bollocks from beginning to end. Read it closely and you will find that the Telegraph isn’t stating she claimed for an eyeliner or feather dusters, merely suggesting that she might have done. There is an irony there in that if Jo had not issued them with as full a statement to act as a counter-balance, their legal team might have blocked the story on the grounds that it would have been clearly defamatory. This paragraph is particularly revealing:

At one point, she submitted a Tesco receipt for £22.67 that appeared to show that the MP or an aide went to the trouble of putting an asterisk next to three items, totalling £5.75, for which she intended to claim — a £1.75 chopping board, a “food saver” for £1.50 and a £2.50 sieve.

In other words, what she did claim for were basic cooking utensils. Nowhere in the article at any stage does it claim that a single item of makeup was claimed for – or even ‘asterisked.’ She is being criticised here, not for claiming an inappropriate item on expenses, but for allowing an inappropriate item to appear on a receipt.

jo090523guardianJo has of course rebutted all this, but that hasn’t prevented other media outlets from reporting it as fact, including the BBC (the cost of Jo’s makeup might not come out of your pocket, but the cost of repeating bullshit claims about her most certainly does – they can’t even be bothered to get her photo right) and the Guardian (in print but again, not online – funny how newpapers are afraid to put their misogynist crap on the web for all to see).

After a fortnight, this story has mutated from one about ministers playing the housing market at taxpayer expense to barefaced sexist lies being spread about one of the Commons’ champions of reform and transparency. Yes, the Telegraph have done democracy a service by breaking this story but never forget that they ultimately represent the forces of darkness.

UPDATE: I’ve written letters of complaint to the Telegraph, the BBC and the Guardian and would urge you to do the same.