Tag Archives: media

The BBC, Jo Swinson, and a bloody great big stone wall

To recap, readers may recall that, two months ago (it really was that long), I got my knickers in a twist over an article in the Telegraph about Jo Swinson MP and her expenses. I – and others – complained to the Telegraph – as well as the Guardian and the BBC. We got a response from the Telegraph and a clarification from the Guardian, but nothing, nada, zip, from the BBC.

Last month, I complained again to the BBC, not just about the specific complaint but the way the BBC handles complaints. That full complaint can be found at the bottom of this piece. Again, for a month, I heard nothing. I phoned them last week to be told that the complaint had been referred and that they would do a little chasing. I was about to start escalating things when this afternoon I finally got a response from the BBC from a Mr Jolly (presumably not this one, and certainly not this one [or even this one]):

Mr Graham,

Thank you for your e-mails and please accept my apologies for the delay in responding. I’ll come to the issue of our complaints process shortly but first your substantive complaint. I have asked our political editor for a response, and this is his reply:

The piece you refer to was where we reported the “Claim” by the Telegraph and, where appropriate, the MP’s “Response”. The Telegraph said receipts submitted to the fees office by Ms Swinson, for reimbursement, included the items. They said she had denied claiming for the eyeliner. We reported both those facts. They published the receipt on their website. Ms Swinson had told them that the eyeliner was not claimed for but had been on a receipt with other items claimed for. The Telegraph said only cosmetics appeared on that receipt.

The page you refer to is a summary page and it is not possible to go into all this detail on it. The redacted version of the expenses claims from Parliament fails to clear the matter up as the receipts in question are redacted so it is not possible to compare the value of the claim with the receipt submitted. There is no doubt about the tooth flosser however as Ms Swinson wrote that herself on to the claim form and it was not redacted when published.

As for our complaints procedure, the page you selected to make your complaint was the General Feedback webform. You should have received an automatic response which said: “We are unable to answer all e-mails individually due to the large amount of feedback we receive.” There is a separate form for complaints, which would have been a better place for your correspondence. This would then have ensured a reply. We would disagree that the options offered on the Newswatch page are confusing; it’s really for senders to determine the nature of their correspondence. To have all e-mails going to one inbox where they are guaranteed a response would mean us replying to several hundred e-mails a day from our department alone. So, your e-mail was read, but it was felt that no action was needed to alter our story and no reply was sent.

Your second complaint was made via the BBC’s central complaints website and was forwarded to us the following day, and then passed on to the political team. I can only apologise for the delay in responding; that is down to us.

Best wishes,

Ian Jolly
News website

This, sadly, is the sort of response I thought I’d get. A terribly polite explanation about why I am wrong in every single way and should just learn to love Big Brother Auntie Beeb. I was further irked to read at the footer:

This e-mail (and any attachments) is confidential and may contain personal views which are not the views of the BBC unless specifically stated.
If you have received it in error, please delete it from your system.
Do not use, copy or disclose the information in any way nor act in reliance on it and notify the sender immediately.
Please note that the BBC monitors e-mails sent or received.
Further communication will signify your consent to this.

So not only is this email confidential, but if I reply to it I am “signifying my consent to this” – this is a fascinating example of Kafka-esque logic (don’t think about it too hard as it may give you a headache. Anyway, without further ado, I have sent them this response:

Dear Mr Jolly,

First of all, I have to say that I do not accept that this email is confidential. There is no reason for it, we are discussing things that are in the public domain and it would appear to go against the principles of the Freedom of Information Act which the BBC is subject to. I will be publishing your response, and my reply, on my blog.

Secondly, thank you for eventually replying to this. I would be happy to accept your apology if you could do me the courtesy of explaining a) why such an extraordinary delay and b) what specific action is being taken to prevent such delays in future.

Working backwards in your email, for the record I did NOT receive a response from your complaints website when I submitted either complaints. I did check my spam box at the time, and have just done so again. Have you checked to see if this facility is in fact working?

You state that “We would disagree that the options offered on the Newswatch page are confusing; it’s really for senders to determine the nature of their correspondence.” I was taken to that page upon clicking the option for “General comment For comments, criticism, compliments and queries about the BBC News website or coverage of an event or story.” At that stage, technically, I was asking for a correction; I wasn’t issuing a complaint.

Instead of merely asserting that you are right and I am wrong, what research have to carried out to ensure that people are not being confused by this? Are you willing to concede that if such research has not been carried out, it should be considered in the interests of providing a good public service?

In terms of the complaint itself, you state that “the page you refer to is a summary page and it is not possible to go into all this detail on it.” This may be so, but that is no excuse for inaccuracy. Your piece – and your response – IS inaccurate. You state that “the Telegraph said receipts submitted to the fees office by Ms Swinson, for reimbursement, included the items” but the Telegraph article (whatever other issues I may have with it) goes to great length to make it clear that NOT all the items on the receipts were submitted for reimbursement.

As for the argument that this subtle nuance could not be included due to the need for brevity, the Guardian article (which they have accepted WAS misleading, but for other reasons) stated: “Cosmetics included in her receipts” – that is strictly speaking accurate. You could amend your article along similar lines of:

“The Dumbartonshire East MP, the youngest in the Commons, submitted receipts to the Fees Office for a number of items including eyeliner, a £19.10 “tooth flosser” and 29p dusters.”

That is 29 words, as opposed to the original which was 26 words. If you are really worried that this makes it too long, you could remove “the youngest in the Commons” which is entirely irrelevant (and could be inferred as innuendo in any case) and would save you 5 words.

What I find most outrageous of all however is your refusal to even take action on changing the name of the constituency. There can be no argument here. Her constituency is called East Dunbartonshire or Dunbartonshire East. There is a seperate constituency called Dumbarton. Do you think it is unreasonable of me to surmise that given your failure to even make this correction, you aren’t taking this complaint seriously?

There are a number of questions there. However, given how long it has taken you to reply to my formal complaint, I feel it is reasonable that you answer them.

Yours sincerely,

James Graham

Sadly, I think my chances of getting anything out of these – even for them to correct the name of the constituency – are pretty remote. There is a wider issue about how the BBC handles complaints. As a public service, it ought to be better than the typical newspaper; instead it is considerably worse. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently and can feel a campaign percolating in my brain.

Finally, I should belatedly link to this article on journalism.co.uk, with full marks to Stephen Tall for taking Andrew Pierce to task.

On 23 May 2009, I wrote a complaint to the BBC regarding the above mentioned article using the BBC News’ Newswatch service (http://news.bbc.co.uk/newswatch/ukfs/hi/newsid_3990000/newsid_3993900/3993909.stm). To date I have received no reply.

On the same day, I issued similar complaints to the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, both of which were replied to within seven days. I am therefore writing to complain about two matters:

a) The content of this specific web page.

b) The way in which the BBC handles comments and complaints.

THE CONTENT OF THIS WEB PAGE

See NOTE 1 regarding my original complaint, and NOTE 2 regarding my complaint to the Daily Telegraph. Since writing these complaints, I have had a reply from the Daily Telegraph who wrote the following:

“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 Guardian also issued the following correction regarding their own coverage of the story (http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2009/may/27/corrections-clarifications):

“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.”

The nature of my complaint to the Telegraph and Guardian was different to that of the BBC in that, while I assert the newspapers had both written misleading articles (something which the Guardian now acknowledges), neither of them had issued factual inaccuracies, the BBC article was factually wrong. To reiterate: the BBC story states that Jo Swinson claimed for “eyeliner, a £19.10 ‘tooth flosser’ and 29p dusters” while the original Telegraph article merely states that they appeared on receipts that were submitted. Indeed, the Telegraph makes it clear that not all the items on the receipts were claimed for.

I would still object to the BBC using the same precise wording in the Telegraph article as it is misleading (why is it newsworthy that an MP purchased makeup out of her own pocket). But the BBC, to date, have not even gone that far.

THE WAY THE BBC HANDLES COMPLAINTS

I have always been critical of the way the BBC handles complaints. At the top end of the scale it has programmes such as Points of View and Radio Four’s Feedback which appear to exist for no better reason than to provide BBC producers and opportunity to condescendingly explain why viewers and listeners are wrong to complain about their programmes.

Since the rise of the internet, the BBC has failed to use this opportunity to make itself more accountable and responsive to complaints, even ones of a purely factual basis.

To take my specific complaint as an example, as a minimum I should have right to the following basic service in terms of handling my complaint:

*

If a direct email address is not an option, I should have been able to upload supporting documents.
*

I should have received an acknowledgement that the message sent via the web form had been sent, including a copy of the original complaint for reference (I anticipated this on this occasion).
*

I should be able to track the progress of the complaint online and be able to see if it is still being processed and what the conclusion has been.
*

If any correction is made, the website in question should include an acknowledgement that it has been revised.

Most decent complaints services in the commercial sector provide this level of service as a matter of routine.

In my case, I have no evidence that my complaint has been dealt with at all. While the picture of Jo Swinson has been corrected (which I only mentioned as an aside), the fact that her constituency name has been wrongly listed has not. While I would content that all of my complaint is purely of a factual nature, the question of her constituency’s name is surely beyond doubt (for the record, there are three similarly named constituencies: Dunbartonshire East, Dunbartonshire West and Dumbarton)? I certainly have never received any acknowledgement.

It is not clear from the website whether I should use the “Newswatch” section in the first instance or use this service as a matter of course. I assumed that Newswatch should be used in the first instance while a formal complaint such as this should only followed if I was not happy with the initial response. The BBC website does not clarify this and it is most confusing. It would appear that complaints issued via “Newswatch” are not dealt with at all. I can only hope that complaints made via this route will be treated with more respect.

So, irrespective of the conclusion of my specific complaint, I am asking you to look into how the BBC might better handle complaints in future.

Yours faithfully,

James Graham

NOTE 1

Original Complaint Submitted on 23 May 2009:

I 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.

NOTE 2

Complaint to Daily Telegraph, 23 May 2009:

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

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.

Europe, turnout, the BNP, the Greens and fair votes

I’ve just got back from an hour’s stint on LBC talking about Yurp. Myself and fellow guest Hugo Brady from the Centre of European Reform were both under the impression we were there to discuss how the European Parliament works and the elections themselves. Instead we found ourselves being asked to mount a full frontal defence of the EU itself, covering everything from the CAP to auditing budgets. Not an easy task when you aren’t prepared (and as a non-expert of the subject I probably wouldn’t have gone on on that basis, but there you go).

For the record, incidently, I would quite happily scrap the Common Agricultural Policy. It’s appalling. If you do think that however, and you actually care about people unfairly affected by it in developing countries (as one of the callers purported to do), then the single worst thing you could do is pull out of the EU and allow the opponents of reform to have it entirely their own way. I don’t like a lot of UK policies and want UK political reform, but if you heard me calling for us to pull out of the UK on that basis you would consider me to be an utter loon.

What I didn’t get a chance to discuss were the poll findings that Vote Match/Unlock Democracy unveiled yesterday suggesting that tomorrow’s turnout could be an all time high for the European Elections. 50% in our YouGov survey said they were definitely going to vote (another 11% gave an ‘8’ or ‘9’ incidentally), which YouGov advise suggests a nominal turnout of 43-45%. That’s pretty unprecedented.

It is clear that the reason for this potentially (and comparatively) high turnout is not a hard fought contest about the European Parliament itself (if only) but MPs’ expenses and the subsequent meltdown of the UK Parliament. In short, the public are out to give the political classes a bloody nose. But it is also interesting to note both the generational and gender differences. Simply put, younger voters will be turning out in much fewer numbers and are not doing so because they simply don’t know what the elections are about. Older voters are, unsurprisingly, most likely to turn out. But it is the middle-aged voters who are most likely to abstain because of the expenses scandal itself. Women are likely to turn out in comparative numbers to men but their reason for not doing so again has more to do with not knowing enough about the elections than it has to do with scandal.

YouGov have also done an eve of poll for the Telegraph, suggesting that Labour may be pushed into third or even fourth place. As Anthony Wells has been chronicling, the polls are all over the place at the moment – the pollsters’ rules-of-thumb assumptions which they use to weight their data appear to have been blown wide open by the collapse in Labour support. We live in unprecedented times and it remains to be seen which pollster emerges with the most credit.

Nonetheless Anthony makes a good fist of an argument that YouGov are likely to be more accurate than most and for all their critics they have tended to be quite accurate. Either way, it looks terrible for Labour, with the Tory and Lib Dem levels of support staying at around their 2004 levels. The Greens look like their vote will be up while UKIP could either be significantly up or a bit down.

The Telegraph report that the 5% figure the YouGov poll gives the BNP suggests that they may well make the breakthrough they were hoping for in the North West. We only have the national figures to look at right now but unless the North West specific figures say something different, I’m not so sure. Based on the national swing, that puts the parties in the North West at:

Conservative: 23% (-1%, 2 MEPs)
Labour: 20% (-7%, 2 MEPs)
Lib Dem: 16% (-, 2 MEPs)
UKIP: 14% (+2%, 1 MEP)
Green: 10% (+4%, 1 MEP)
BNP: 6% (-, 0 MEPs)

Those figures come with a health warning, not to mention the fact that national swings are pretty spurious at the best of times. But it does highlight one aspect of this election which has been criminally under-reported: the resurgence of the Green Party. The psephology behind their Stop Nick Griffin campaign is entirely spurious but there is no escaping the fact that every vote for the Greens in the North West will make it harder for the BNP to get elected (where they are wrong is where they claim that a tactical Green vote is better than a vote for the Tories, Labour, Lib Dems or UKIP in this respect). And with a poll leap of the scale that every pollster appears to be reporting will result in a quite healthy haul of Green MEPs. This is a big deal – certainly a bigger deal than the possibility that the BNP might win a single seat. Yet by and large they have been ignored.

If I have one prediction to make about these elections it is that they will be a vindications of the proportional voting system. I dislike closed list systems but even closed list-PR is better than closed list-FPTP.

Would we be looking at such a dramatic result if we still used FPTP for the European Elections? In one sense, we would. The story right now would not be “will the BNP gain a seat in the North West?” but “will the BNP gain seats in East London, the Potteries, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire?” All of these areas are places where FPTP has enabled the BNP to gain a foothold – often gaining swathes of seats with remarkably small shares of the vote. The BNP would have a much easier time targeting four old-style Euro-constituencies than they have targeting a whole region. Far from making it easier for the BNP then, PR has actually made it tougher.

But overall, it would have lead to business-as-usual. PR has given the public a means of punishing the political class (which as a whole, completely deserves it). Without PR, we would be looking at a repeat of 1989 where the Greens got 15% of the vote and not a single seat. Now maybe it is time the Greens (and UKIP) got their act together and learned to target but the electorate shouldn’t have to wait for them to get their tactics right in order to express its displeasure (and targeting is at best a necessary evil in any case).

Face the facts: under FPTP, we would not now be looking at as high a turnout and the main parties would be sitting pretty. The public would have no outlet to vent their frustration. That would have been a dangerously unhealthy state of affairs.

It is certainly frustrating that the last thing this election is being decided upon is what it is osensibly about – the future direction of the European Union. But if what we get in exchange is the first real opportunity for the public to fully express itself in a UK-wide election, that is a price worth paying. Now: let’s replace it with an open list system or STV so it can be even better!

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.

Nichola Fisher and the Max Clifford sausage factory

Unlike my distinctly unesteemed Assembly Member Brian Coleman, I am not in the business of claiming that a defenceless woman can somehow be in any way responsible for getting whacked round the legs by an armed policeman, and I can understand why Nichola Fisher may have felt the need to hire a publicist. But I can’t help but feel uncomfortable having watched her interview on BBC News.

It is clear that Clifford has decided to process her through his sausage factory, inside of which all his clients get a makeover so that the unaccountably all end up looking and speaking in exactly the same way. A pretty dress; hair tied back neatly; lip gloss that only seems to serve the purpose exposing her rather ragged teeth. She has been transformed from barbarian at the gates to English Rose. I think I understand the logic behind this rebranding exercise, but I surely can’t be the only one who questions whether presenting her as something she surely is not is either honest or particularly effective.

And then there is what she says. In the interview she presents herself as a total innocent. “If he had wanted me to move on, he could have asked politely” she says at one point. I’m sorry, but bollocks. She was at a protest and the film quite clearly shows her effing and blinding. I’m not for a second going to claim that she deserved getting punched and batoned to the floor, but it is quite clear she was there to cause a stink and to give the police a hard time.

Let’s not mount the victims of police violence on a pedestal. Ian Tomlinson was quite clearly not a living saint. And far from the dainty, shrinking wallflower she is currently presenting herself as, Fisher clearly knows how to look after herself. Presenting them in an idealised way is ultimately counter-productive and entirely plays to the prejudices of no marks like Letters from a Tory: specifically, that you can only be a victim of police violence if you live an entirely blameless life, dress neatly, go to bed early and behave like a model citizen (and ideally vote Conservative). Fisher doesn’t need to wash her hair to elicit my sympathy and I don’t like the implication that anyone who isn’t willing to play this media game somehow deserves what they get.

For an anti-globalisation protestor to so happily accept the services of spin in this way (regardless of whether she is making any money out of the deal or not), seems to betray a certain lack of awareness. Surely this sort of blatant media manipulation is the sort of thing she was protesting against?

Does the right really value freedom? The acid test.

I’m trying to sum up how I feel having watched the video on the Guardian website of Ian Tomlinson being bit by a policeman with a baton while he had his hands in his pockets and was walking away from them. I’d say anger, but I think the honest answer is: panic.

I watched it about 20 minutes ago and my heart is still racing. More than anything, it frightens me. That could have been me, minding my own business. If I had been tripped over in that way by a mob of coppers, however angry I might have been I would have been shitting myself. I think my heart could have taken it, but I don’t know. I have absolutely no interest of putting it to the test – and absolutely no way of preventing it from happening if I ever get unlucky. This is what it feels like to be afraid of the state.

I never did believe the initial police account, but it just seems to get worse and worse. What is clear from the video is the level of contempt at least some of the police regarded the demonstrators (and in this case, even innocent bystanders). And when it blows up in their faces? They invoke the law of the playground: however much you might be in the wrong, never snitch. Even worse, they use their considerable PR machine to spread lies about the conduct of the protestors. This has happened again and again in the past; we know what they’re like. And yet, with the honourable exception of the Guardian, the silence from most of the media has been deafening.

But parts of the blogosphere has been notably silent as well. I’ve just scanned the rightwing/libertarian blogs I could think of off the top of my head: Iain Dale, Guido, Coffee House, Comment Central, Dizzy Thinks, Conservative Home, Libertarian Party UK, Is there more to life than shoes, Telegraph Blogs, the Adam Smith Institue blog, Douglas Carswell, Nadine Dorries…* The top story on the Freedom Association blog at the moment is about the police handling of the G20 protests, complaining at the ignomious treatment of… the Adam Smith Institute Director who was questioned by police (numerous other of the aforementioned blogs have singled this incident out too – this is the martyr of 1/4 as far as they are concerned).

I’m not for a second suggesting that if you don’t blog about this you don’t care, but taken as a whole this is quite striking. These blogs obsessively complain about every possible infringement of the liberties of the affluent and articulate middle classes, yet when a blameless man in a dirty t-shirt dies not a single one of them has asked a question. Four hours since the Guardian released that video, not a single one has mentioned it. Daniel Finklestein, who chose to single out the Lib Dem MPs who were acting as monitors atthe protests, has been keeping mum.

When they’ve shouted about Damien Green or David Davis, I have tended to their side, and not been afraid to argue with lefties who can be eye-wateringly tribalist. Damien Green’s treatment was unacceptable. David Davis’ stance was honourable. But it is clearer than ever now that I could never expect an ounce of solidarity in return. Over the last few days, I’ve been given a salient demonstration of quite what the right really thinks about freedom in this country.

* In the interests of fairness, it should be pointed out that LabourList has been resolutely silent on this topic as well, but it is very much not representative of the left in that respect (indeed in any respects – can it even legitimately be defined as leftwing?).

To prevent a riot, it was necessary to cause one

Very busy at the moment and haven’t had time to sit down and really work out what I think about the police handling of the protests on Wednesday. So instead, here are a few random links. First, an eye witness account by Tom Brake:

Danny Finkelstein thoroughly disapproved of Brake and company doing this, as Stephen Tall relates.

Justin McKeating has a number of useful links on the subject.

John O’Connor meanwhile makes the case for the police.

As for my own view? John O’Connor’s article made my blood boil. What it amounts to is a refutation of the right to protest. At all. His argument is that the police should always engage in “massive overkill” because it prevents potential injury and damage to property. It is a defence that can, and increasingly is, used to justify everything. Jack Bauer with a truncheon. The fact that it causes inconvenience and even distress on the 95%+ of the people who are there for peaceful reasons is treated with disdain.

Let’s not forget that the police have been hyping the 1 April protests for weeks; indeed they were telling anyone who would listen that the violence would break out on the 28 March demos. This is, they are set on telling every journalist they can get their hands on, is the start of a “summer of rage.”

This media advance hype appeared to only serve two very negative purposes. The first was to scare people away. That means that the thugs make up a greater proportion of the crowd. As a casual observer, I have no evidence of this, but it does appear that violence in protests tends to break out either when the protest is small or when a breakaway faction goes off the beaten path. The larger a demonstration, the more peaceful it tends to be. Is it police policy to take steps to ensure that protests are small and violent as opposed to large and peaceful?

The other factor, and again I am no social scientist so view this with caution, is to question whether such media coverage actually incites violence. Ben Goldacre pointed to research into this regarding suicide last week. Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe pointed to research at how media coverage incites school shootings. This is all becoming quite well understood in other areas. To what extent are the police and their media collaborators actually inciting the violence they are “warning” us of?

This is an issue the Police Complaints Committee and the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee ought to be looking into.

Finally, rightly or wrongly, a man died. Again, rightly or wrongly, thousands of people had their liberties restricted. Just why is it that the Damien Green affair generated weeks of headlines while the best most newspapers seem to be able to do is put out misleading accounts (several now withdrawn) reminiscent of the Sheffield Hillsborough Sun coverage claiming that the protestors hurled bricks and bottles at the police trying to help the dying man? Why the fuck are Parliamentarians and journalists (plenty of notable exceptions, yes, but I suspect they would be the first to agree with me in the generality) not doing their fucking jobs?

But look! Doesn’t Michelle Obama look sensational in that dress! Ooh! And JK Rowling read excerpts from her childrens book to a bunch of politicians’ wives – all over 40…

A Lembit Blog! Of sorts.

Thanks to the diligent detective work of Costigan Quist (something which perhaps we should draw a veil over), I can reveal that Lembit’s Daily Sport columns are now available online (Warning: NSFW).

So, given my call for him to have a blog, is this mission accomplished? Well, the very fact that I have to label it NSFW suggests that there is more work to do (if I never have to look at Jo Guest’s starry chuff hole ever again it will be too soon), and it would be nice if he didn’t have to bang on about the Daily Sports’ ‘babes’ in every other sentence. Frankly, I’m a bit sceptical that the hairy-of-palm need politicians to connect with them. They seem to be more than adequately represented on the benches of both Houses of Parliament already in my experience.

Still, at least we can now read the column now. The fact that it doesn’t include even the basics such as an RSS feed suggests that the cash-strapped Daily Sport may not be around much longer.

Rafael, the thing about golden ages is that they tend to end

Congratulations to Rafael Behr for writing what is possibly the most complacent, ahistorical article I’ve read thus far in 2009. It’s not that any of the facts he alludes to are particularly wrong, its that he completely misses the point.

Can the era we currently live in be legitimately described as a “golden age of liberty”? In as much as any era can be described as a golden age, certainly. We don’t ban plays (even if certain individuals do manage to get them shut down from time to time), we no longer reserve social opprobrium for gay people or children born out of wedlock. I can declare, here, that God does not exist and instead of being burned at the stake, receive the odd plaintive comment. Christ, you can even walk down the street with a name like “Rafael Behr” and not get punched (I would imagine).

A note of caution: the whole notion of golden ages is at odds with liberalism. It is no coincidence that fascists, religious zealots and nazis (and superhero comics fans) love to bang on about them. By contrast, if you don’t believe that utopia is either attainable or desirable, you should be sceptical that any era could be described as a golden age. It is entirely unsurprising that all the golden ages in history have one thing in common: they all came to a crashing end and were often quickly followed by what can only be described as a “dark age.”

What is particularly dumb about Behr’s article, is that two years ago you could read remarkably similarly toned articles about the economy which drew the same conclusion: we live in a golden age, the pessimists who are predicting economic doom and gloom ignore the fact that we have enjoyed economic growth for X number of years; anyway, they are middle class wankers who live in big houses and have lived off the fat of the land; what about [insert reference to token minority group here]?

Our liberty and economic security go hand in hand – just as failing democracies tend to do worse economically, failing economies find their democracy under threat. The police and media are already irresponsibly stoking up the hype about 2009 having a “summer of rage.” “British jobs for British workers” is in danger of becoming the far-right’s new rallying cry (thanks, Gordon). Behr brags about how we don’t spy on our neighbours, blithely ignoring the fact that the government actively encourages us to do so when it comes to benefit cheats. He ignores the fact that the current government agenda is not merely to store information about us on computer, but to use that data to monitor people who seem to be involved in criminal activity (regardless of the number of false positives that will throw up). Whitehall knows less about me than Tesco? Well, I don’t have a Tesco Clubcard but even if I did, Tesco wouldn’t be able to use that information for much more than to sell me more stuff, and they can’t fine me £1,000 for putting someone else’s shopping on my card. And if I am forced to register for an identity card, the Home Office will know a LOT more about me than Tescos – or even Ryanair. If Jack Straw comes back with Clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill (now dropped but will almost certainly return again soon), there will be almost no information about me they won’t be able to look at.

The whole “transformational government” agenda is only really about five years old. We are at the very early stages. Already though we’ve seen an emboldened police force arresting people for taking photographs in the street and banning boardgames which could be used in an act of terrorism. We’ve seen nonsenses like Form 696 (something tells me Behr is not a bashment fan).

Behr is keen to look at the past and remark how much more free we are compared to then. What worries civil liberties campaigners is that we are headed back there and that all the progress of the last 100 years will be for nothing. Ten years ago, I remember newspapers – even the Telegraph and the Daily Mail – prepared to contemplate that cannabis prohibition isn’t working. Now the Guardian and the Independent rail against skunk. Where will we be in ten years time? Fifty? Why should we take anyone seriously who feeds us with atrocity-porn about the past yet doesn’t address that?

Behr claims to “give thanks that there is a well-mobilised artistic [note this comes first in his order of priorities], media [second] and political lobby exercising the necessary eternal vigilance” but then immediately goes out of his way to belittle them in the very next sentence “I’m glad there are intelligent, dedicated people carefully monitoring our progress down the slippery slope, demarcating in units of kilo-outrage our incremental creep towards the thick end of the wedge.” In other words, he couldn’t really give a hoot. It won’t affect you after all, will it Pastor Niemöller?