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There are some people who owe politicians and journalists a lot. These people are estate agents and parking wardens. A few years ago, these groups would routinely rank at the bottom of any ‘respect’ poll in the UK, now, thanks to MPs expense scandals and the phone hacking debacle, they no longer need worry about footing the league.
In international comparisons two things used to be true. Our press – particularly what we know as the ‘red tops’ or tabloids – may have been a little spicy for some palates, but it was emphatically not dull, unlike most of its continental counterparts and all of its American ones. Secondly, our politicians may, by contrast, seem rather dull but were – by international standards – not, apparently, corrupt.
Then we found that the press’s spice was provided partly through the routine use of illegal spying. And that our politicians were corrupt in a petty, but completely endemic, way. Ever since we have had a stand-off with politicians saying there must be statutory regulation of the press and the press saying that if there was the politicians might stop us finding out how bad they are.
It leaves the media observer, and every citizen, in a tricky position. What the press did was pretty heinous, and they have proved themselves consistently unable to regulate themselves properly. On the other hand politicians – who, however many times removed, will stand ultimately behind any statutory regulator – keep proving themselves unworthy of regulating anything.
Enter our (now former) Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, Maria Miller. As the Hutton Inquiry into hacking wound up she was revealed by the press to have been over generous and very zealous in claiming living expenses – yes, even after the scandal of a few years ago.
She was found guilty as charged by the official who investigated and told to repay £45,000. A committee of MPs – for reasons best known to themselves – watered that down to £6,000 and recommended she apologised, specifically for the way she obstructed the investigation. She did so in the House of Commons with a 32 second statement that, as The Guardian observed, added up to a contemptuous: “whatever…” This is the same Maria Miller who, in her day job, is front and centre of the debate over press regulation.
Maria Miller was elected in 2005 and, in common with most MPs today, I think would be hard pressed to articulate an ideology beyond the clichés on election posters. We are always told we are lucky to have these talented people in Government as they could always make far more money in the private sector. Certainly, they seem to think they are owed something and, as one has to assume their main motivator to be in public life is ego, they are not much minded to apologise when they are caught taking more than they are owed.
If a free press – that is no statutory regulation and the risk they will sin again – is the Devil, and politicians with their fingers in press regulation is the deep blue sea, I’ll choose the Devil and all his tunes.