Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Public Pressure or Media Witch Hunt?

David Cameron certainly appeared to have stolen a march on Gordon Brown yesterday. With his firm grasp of what is now expected, and a very public instruction to his shadow cabinet to pay back their most glaring expense abuses, Cameron looked and sounded like a prime minister. The actual PM was left playing catch-up, with a series of tortured interviews at the end of the day which were then challenged by political correspondents (Brown announced all party agreement on a solution which is still under discussion on the relevant Commons committee). When Nick Robinson kept pressing him about whether he was not in fact merely apeing the Tory leader's ideas, Brown became increasingly frustrated, and was unable to make a response that didn't simply sound petulant.

Nevertheless, as the saga continues, and MPs now start to fall over themselves to pay back ever spiralling sums of ill-gotten expenses, the question could justly arise as to how far this is a good, democratic response to the power of the people, and how far it is a supine reaction to a media conducted witch-hunt. There are signs that some MPs are starting to fight back. The Liberals' Andrew George has described the 'Telegraph' story of his expenses as a mendacious and vindictive fabrication, and other targeted MPs have similarly started to point out the errors in some of the reporting. For the most part, though, the expenses speak for themselves, and the glory of a democracy is that each MP will need to make restitution. Nowhere is this clearer than in the junior minister Phil Hope's decision to pay back some £41,000, on the grounds that he cannot bear the perception people now have of him.

As the furore over individual expenses dies down, there are definitely some interesting thoughts to be aired about the health of our democratic system, and the nature of our representative institution and those who sit in it. No matter how painful to MPs themselves, that can only be a positive development.

Meanwhile, the video below strings three of the more memorable news items of the last couple of days together, beginning with Stephen Fry's apparent defence of MPs and attack on journalists. He later commented that he wished he'd kept his mouth shut - make up your own mind!

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