Expenses, blogs and the real agenda setters

I’ve not posted for about two weeks now, and yet still the first thing I see in the news today is the stories of the expenses of Members of Parliament.

After the Telegraph got hold of the data, rumoured to have cost them £150,000, they have released snippets of it into the public domain.

Cabinet Ministers felt the force first, with Hazel Blears at the head. The revelation that she claimed allowances on three separate properties in the space of a year has made her position, to some, untenable. In response, Hazel Blears has denied breaking any rules whilst dressed like an extra from Easy Rider.

Sinn Fein MPs got their cages rattled on Saturday. The party’s five representatives in Parliament don’t actually, er, represent their constituencies in Parliament. In fact, they don’t actually sit in Parliament in protest. Yet they still managed to procure over £105,000 in second home expenses. Before we go overboard here, it is worth noting that due to their absenteeism they do not get paid a salary. Fair enough – but what business would they have in London then that requires a second home? I would like to know, because to reject with one hand and take with the other seems a bit hypocritical. It is quite the dagger in Sinn Fein’s legitimacy.

Over the course of the last two days, the Conservatives have also had their dirty laundry aired out in the pages of the Telegraph. Changing lightbulbs, dog food, gardening…all the necessaries for parliamentary duty.

Now I apologise as I’ve got a tendency to go all Charlie Brooker here, but anywho…

On the face of it, the whole exposé seems like an excellent piece of journalism, blowing open the bubble around Westminster, and opening the frivolous consumption of taxpayer sterling by honourable Members (LOL) to public scrutiny. For too long our constituency representatives have got away with this, and now we can bring this sorry mess to an end. A modern day Watergate.

Except you’d be wrong.

The Telegraph have been quick to lap-up the praise in the wake of them ‘breaking’ the story – taking plaudits from the Observer, a former Guardian editor and Alistair Campbell. Bless em.

Yet if having a spare £150k to blow on some scans (see top of page) is what is classed as investigative these days then god help us all. In fact, it shows the lengths to which papers are willing to go in order to set the news agenda. Why is this?

Well a long, long time ago, before the Internet, Government and the media were rather intertwined (as Peter Oborne reminds us). One wanted power, the other wanted good circulation figures. As the best-selling stories uniformally relate to scandal, this meant tacit agreements were in place which scripted the whats, whens and hows of a story and the Government’s reaction. Soap opera-ish.

Then the Internet came, and instead of reading about stories in the paper, people set up blogs and blew a gasket about them. Recessmonkey, Guido, everyone else with a voice and a keyboard decided they had something to say, and nobody could stop them. The whole thing has got to the stage now where we have bloggers appearing on TV, and in the case of the recent Mcbride scandal, directly effecting politics.

Guido made a £10,000 offer last month to the receipts-holder, who had approached The Times for the sum of £300k. Since then the Telegraph has had to stump up an astronomical sum of money to be able to become the agenda setter…for the time being. From a media perspective, it just shows that with the introduction of free-for-all internet blogging, the cost of setting the agenda for newspapers has, ironically, gone up and up.

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