Daily Archives: 6 June 2009

Jo Swinson and those complaints

Rob Parsons commented:

OK, I have a nice letter from the Telegraph. What now?

It looks as if Rob got the same letter I did, which read as follows:

Thank you for your email of 27 May 2009, which was addressed to telegrapheditorial.

While we note your comments, we believe that the above article was written and in a way that will be readily understood by our readers. The facts are not in dispute and Jo Swinson was given full opportunity to respond. Following publication we were contacted by a Liberal Democrat press officer on Ms Swinson’s behalf. This was only to draw our attention to part of a headline on the website version of the article, whichwas then modified as requested. The matter was resolved amicably and no other issue was raised.

we are satisfied that there has been no breach of the PCC Code of Practice.

Yours sincerely,

Rhidian Wynn Davies
Consulting Editor

The Telegraph response is as innuendo-laden as the original article. “We believe that the above article was written and in a way that will be readily understood by our readers” – yeah, I believe that too. Just as journalists took it to mean that she had claimed cosmetics on expenses (without actually saying so), I’m sure the general readership drew the same conclusion. And as for “the facts are not in dispute” -that’s only because the issue is not the facts but the way they were presented. More to the point, the fact that they were reported at all given that the story itself contains no explicit allegations of wrongdoing, merely the suggestion of the possibility of it.

To answer Rob’s question, and having spoken to a number of people about this, by response is a grudging “not much.” My understanding is that Jo herself is wary of taking the matter further on the reasonable grounds that a poor ruling by the PCC, whose independence is questionable at the best of times, would simply make things worse. She has a point. It is hard to see where to go from here given that the Telegraph are unlikely to admit any wrongdoing and ultimately have taken steps, however cynical, to stay on the right side of defamation law.

The response from the Guardian was rather more positive. In case you missed it, they published the following in their corrections and clarifications column on 27 March:

In the category Cheapest claims, we stated without qualification that cosmetics were included in receipts submitted by Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire (23 May, page 6). Jo Swinson has denied claiming for these makeup items, telling the Telegraph, which originally reproduced one of her receipts, that the cosmetics appeared on a Boots receipt for other items she was claiming.

Perhaps this isn’t the apology Jo deserves, but it is at least an acknowledgement that they had no factual basis for the story.

Finally, there is the matter of the BBC. I wrote to them on the same day as the Telegraph and the Guardian yet to date have had no response whatsoever. The offending article is still there. They have corrected her picture, but have not even corrected the name of her constituency which surely even the most arrogant of journalist would have to accept is beyond dispute.

The BBC case is actually more serious than the Telegraph one. Where the Telegraph have published innuendo, the BBC have made a specific allegation despite not even having access to the original expenses records that the Telegraph have access to. They haven’t responded in a timely manner. They are bound by law to be impartial and they are funded out of the public purse.

So the next step, which I will be doing tomorrow, is to issue a formal complaint to the BBC Trust. Watch this space.

2009: worst local elections ever?

I wrote a short piece on the local elections on CiF yesterday, which is now live. At the time I was struggling to come up with a proper assessment of how the Lib Dems had done in the local elections so mostly concentrated on the departure of Lord Rennard, but I did write this:

The Lib Dems’ performance in the local elections last week appears to be a perfect example of the perniciousness of the British electoral system. Our overall share of the vote was up but we haemorrhaged councillors because of a swing from Labour to the Conservatives and independents. The Tories certainly performed strongly in this election, but their gains massively outweigh their share of the vote. This ought to make any right-minded individual seethe with a sense of injustice.

At the time I was wondering if the final Lib Dem tally would actually end up positive. Looking at the BBC results service yesterday, every time I refreshed our negative score got a bit smaller. In the end, the BBC have recorded a net -4 result for the party. However, Sky are saying -47.

Why the difference? Well, it seems that the BBC are counting all the new unitaries as entirely new and thus not recording them as gains or losses for any party, while Sky are basing it on notional results. I have to say that Sky are right – these unitaries didn’t appear out of nowhere and in the case of Cornwall they have simply phased out all the district councils. Nonetheless, -47 is an uncomfortable result for the party.

Tim Montgomerie has been jumping up and down on ConservativeHome and the “independent” PoliticsHome to brand this as “the decline of the Liberal Democrats” but let’s have a bit of perspective. Firstly, there is the fact that by all accounts the Lib Dems got more votes on Thursday than in any other set of county council elections. Hardly a decline. Secondly, these losses are almost exclusively limited to the South West – where we had the most to lose. Discount the South West and we made a healthy net gain of seats overall.

Clearly something happened in the South West. Tim puts it all down to the tactical genius of Eric Pickles and the fact that the Tories have finally learned that goose-stepping and doing Hitler salutes (figuratively speaking) isn’t a particularly effective way to win votes. However, we are talking about the South West here and on a day where the county council elections coincided with the European elections. The South West is notoriously eurosceptic and this was presumably a major factor as well. And in Cornwall in particular there is a lot of strong feeling about the creation of the unitary – this almost certainly hurt us.

Should the party have diverted more funds to battling the Tories and UKIP in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset? I’m sure a lot of people in the area think so and it might have stopped Tim from being able to crow today, but long term it would have been foolish. But it might also have simply been a collossal waste of money. You can’t simply throw money around and employ a bag of tricks and win elections. One would have thought that a Conservative, of all people, would understand that.

Hopefully we’ll have some decent county-by-county analysis of these results to chew over soon. My guess is that it will throw up some appalling examples of undemocratic results. Labour have been wiped out in many parts of the country, but they still got more than 1-in-5 votes. The Tory share of the vote is not particularly high and has plunged compared to last year. Their success nationwide is almost entirely down to the collapse of the Labour vote.

I’m sure a lot of Tories reading this will retort that all this is just sour grapes, but what is the point of an election if it doesn’t reflect public opinion? What’s worse, it creates a political vacuum in places through which extremists rush through (Hugh Muir seems to absolve the Lib Dems of this in his article today – he shouldn’t. The English Democrats’ victory in Doncaster yesterday for instance was helped by the local Lib Dems’ decision not to field a candidate).

These results ought to be a wakeup call. Sadly, the media has now switched all its attention back on Labour infighting.