MPs’ expenses scoop: the inside story
November 16, 2009 by admin
The reporters who broke the MPs’ expenses scandal revealed the inside story to University of Westminster journalism students in a fascinating account of their investigation, writes Victoria Maw.
The Daily Telegraph’s deputy political editor Robert Winnett and chief reporter Gordon Rayner told how their team sifted through a million documents in a secret room at the newspaper’s headquarters and endured the wrath of many angry MPs. Some even shook their fists at researchers
Their work for the conservative-leaning newspaper, which has been turned into a book called ‘No expenses spared’ explained how some MPs from across all parties abused the expenses system.
Rayner said the cases went from the downright ridiculous and trivial to “bordering on criminality”.
The information was so sensitive that it took the Telegraph a month to build up a relationship of trust with their source.
“It was a big digging exercise,” said Winnett. “A cynical group of journalists were genuinely excited.”
Rayner believes that Prime Minister Gordon Brown damaged his own reputation by micromanaging the expenses scandal. “Cameron showed leadership whilst Brown dithered,” said Rayner. “He [Brown] was obsessed with his image. He was only interested in how it would rebound on him. He poured over the paper late into the night with a pencil,” he said.
The spotlight has also fallen on one of the university’s local members of parliament, Tony McNulty. The reporters believe the expenses row will probably wreck the Harrow MP’s political career.
The MP for Harrow East agreed to pay back more than £13,000 in expenses this October after it emerged that he had claimed second home allowance expenses on a house that his parents live in.
The Commons Standards and Privileges Committee found that the expenses were not wholly connected with McNulty’s parliamentary duties and his parents obtained a benefit from parliamentary funds to which he was not entitled. Although McNulty occasionally worked from the Harrow property, the committee said he overclaimed in relation to mortgage interest and council tax. Former employment minister McNulty publicly apologised to his constituents in October.
Winnett said McNulty was “fairly contrite” when he was told that the Telegraph had details of his expenses claims.
“He dealt with it moderately well. I think he even made a joke about it,” said Winnett “but it will probably end his political career”.
In response, Tony McNulty said: “Any fair-minded person who reads the committee’s report will see that I fully complied with all rules and advice given to me at the time and that the commissioner decided he would change the advice retrospectively. He is perfectly entitled to do that and I have absolutely no complaint. It will be for the people of Harrow to decide my future.”
Winnett and Rayner say that the clever MPs said very little whereas those who got into trouble defended themselves too publicly. “Nobody had even heard of Margaret Moran before she insisted on going on television. She now may well be replaced by Esther Rantzen, “ said Rayner.
Many MPs were hostile towards the Telegraph over its handling of the scandal but Winnett and Rayner say that most soon realised that they could not afford to isolate the papers.
The story also caused a surge of interest in politics. “This summer people got interested in politics again,” said Rayner. “They took interest in who their MPs are and this can only be a good thing for democracy.”
Rayner adds that the story’s beauty was in its simplicity. “The story was something that kids can understand. It was straightforward and dead simple. Hazel Blears claimed a Kitkat,” he said.
The journalist told students that other papers had refused to buy the story, notably the Times who thought the story was too risky from a legal perspective. Winnett thinks the Telegraph’s new young editor Will Lewis is responsible for the go-ahead attitude.
“There was a will to have a big story and to show that the Telegraph has changed,” says Winnett.