Political hypocrisy and a free press
Published in: Daily Mail
Suddenly, it’s deja vu all over again. Just when we thought the ‘cash for access’ scandal was a thing of the past, that particular abuse has once more reared its unsavoury head.
A Conservative Party Co-Treasurer, Peter Cruddas, has been forced to resign after being filmed offering access to the Prime Minister and Government policy-making in return for a party donation of £250,000, boasting: ‘It will be awesome for your business.’
The only thing that’s awesome here is the brazenness of the boast. Given the enormity of the ‘cash for access’ scandal under the last Labour government, it beggars belief that anyone in politics would ever again explicitly solicit party donations in return for political access and influence.
After resigning, Mr Cruddas tried to dismiss his remarks as mere ‘bluster’, denying that donors could indeed influence policy or gain undue access to politicians.
Too late. He was forced to fall upon his sword because he was caught bang to rights. As a result, the public is now even sadder and wiser about the behaviour of the political class. And they are thus better informed, solely because of a journalistic ‘sting’ carried out by the Sunday Times.
Mr Cruddas offered a lobbyist and her two ostensible overseas clients direct access to David Cameron and input into the Downing Street policy unit if they joined a ‘premier league’ of donors who gave the Conservative Party six-figure sums, rather than ‘scratching around’ with donations of £10,000.
These overseas clients were, in fact, undercover Sunday Times reporters posing as wealth fund executives wanting to develop contacts with the Prime Minister.
To make matters even worse, Mr Cruddas made his offer even though he believed the money would come from a fund in Liechtenstein that was not eligible to make donations under election law.
This return of ‘cash for access’ is politically toxic for Mr Cameron. Yesterday, he quickly insisted that claiming access to ministers in return for party donations was ‘completely unacceptable’, and that it was ‘not the way’ the Conservative Party raised money.
To which the public will likely respond — pull the other one, it’s got bells on.
For many deeply awkward questions about Conservative Party sleaze now present themselves as a result of this explosive newspaper story — not least the Prime Minister’s admission that he and his wife hosted intimate Downing Street dinners for millionaire donors.
What was that? Did I hear a faint squeak about press ethics and the Leveson inquiry? Surely not! It must have been the sound of eggs splattering all over certain sanctimonious faces.
For the departure of Mr Cruddas was the outcome of a piece of subterfuge by the reviled press — a classic example of cutting corners in the public interest.
And thank goodness for that. With the vultures of regulation hovering over British journalism, what this episode has underlined is the cardinal importance in a democracy of a press that is truly free to expose wrongdoing.
Indeed, this ‘sting’ is but the latest in a long tradition of journalistic exposés of illegality, corruption or other abuses.
Previous undercover investigations revealed that Labour ministers such as Geoff Hoon, Stephen Byers and Richard Caborn had breached Parliamentary codes of conduct on political lobbying.
Last year, the Mail on Sunday revealed that Prince Andrew had quietly used controversial businessman David ‘Spotty’ Rowland to help pay off the Duchess of York’s debts. This was after the Daily Mail had forced him to quit in disgrace as Tory Party Treasurer in 2010 after it revealed his aggressive business tactics and irregular domestic life.
And who can forget the epic parliamentary expenses saga — duck-house and all — which revealed institutionalised corruption in Parliament across the political spectrum.
That scandal came to light only after the Daily Telegraph slowly and painfully used whistle-blowing leaks to drag the expenses receipts out of a political class determined to thwart disclosure of this information, and which thus acted as a conspiracy against the public interest to conceal politicians’ improper and illegal activities.
The number of such exposés over time is vast. The benefit to a democracy of journalists sailing close to the wind in the public interest is simply unquantifiable.
And yet their freedom to do so is now under threat as a result of the head of steam against the media currently being ventilated by the Leveson inquiry.
For sure, not everything the media does is defensible. Bad or even illegal things have indeed been done in the cause of getting a story. People think the press is just like any other institution and should be subject to outside regulation. If that were to happen, however, it would spell the end for the kind of robust journalism that led to the departure of Mr Cruddas.
This is almost certainly not what the inquiry chairman Lord Justice Leveson himself would want, since he has repeatedly declared his support for a press free to do its job in protecting the public interest. He merely wishes to draw a line against egregious journalistic excesses.
But the democratic baby is hugely in danger of being thrown out with the media bathwater.
Many seem to think that a line can be drawn between stories that are genuinely in the public interest and stories that merely feed the interest of a prurient public.
In fact, the two very often shade into each other and make such a line exceedingly grey. If it were nevertheless to be drawn, this would inevitably spell the demise of investigative journalism that brings wrongdoing to light.
The problem, however, is that the public tends not rate the press at all. Opinion polls suggest that journalists are disliked even more than politicians.
Certainly, journalists must accept some responsibility for falling so low in public esteem. But personally, I fear something rather deeper is at work here. For the media surely reflects the society it serves.
Britain’s press is famous throughout the world for its in-your-face approach to all in public life. That reflects in turn the historic character of the British — a society of bloody-minded individualists, deeply sceptical of authority or pretension, given to laughing at power rather than being intimidated by it.
The British press developed in that national image, going back to the pamphleteers of the 18th century with their scurrilous wit, jeers at authority and love of scandal.
How very different from, say, France where a deeply hierarchical society has produced a press so inhibited against ‘intruding’ into the private lives of public figures that most French citizens remain unaware of the corruption or debauchery of those who govern them.
And how different also from the United States where, even with its near-religious veneration of free speech, the deep social conformism of American society has produced a press that is deferential and even obsequious.
By contrast, Britain’s often raucous, vulgar, scandal-seeking press has ensured that British democracy has been the most free and least corrupt in the world. Until now.
For Britain has become increasingly sentimentalised, mistaking outward show for actual substance over wide swathes of its national life.
With so much priority now being afforded to being kind and gentle and not giving offence, wrongdoing by public figures increasingly gets a free pass — especially in the arena of sexual behaviour — and it is instead those who attempt to expose it who are vilified.
Left unchecked, this will erode the great tradition of calling the mighty to account which made Britain unique as a bastion of liberty.
Freedom of the press is not only essential — it is also indivisible. The return of the ‘cash for access’ scandal is a reality-check for all who think otherwise.