Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Agenda setting

So, the scandal of MEP expenses spreads through the media – the latest target being Michael Cashman paying his "gay lover" a salary of £30,000 a year, despite his also holding down a full-time job as director of Cause Celebre, a high-profile PR firm that "has hosted a string of glitzy events for the Labour Party."

However, while the media and not a few of the political blogs are waxing lyrical about this issue, there seems more than a little reluctance to acknowledge that this scandal has been festering under their noses for a considerable number of years.

One looks askance, therefore, at the self-congratulatory johnny-come-latelys who don't do "Europe" from one year to another, piling in with their own inane brand of tee-hee politics, as if they – and they alone – had discovered something new.

One also takes with a pinch of salt the approving noises from some blogs about the "decisive action" taken by David Cameron when, as we pointed out yesterday, the fact that this has gone on for so long without top-level intervention is a scandal in its own right.

The longevity of this scandal is more than adequately reinforced by a letter in the Daily Telegraph from Malcolm Allsop, formerly a journalist covering EU affairs and now an independent TV producer.

We writes that reports of "irregularities" in the way some European MPs are claiming expenses are nothing new. As a journalist, he says, I covered the European Parliament in its early years and even then all the talk in the bars was of the wheezes that various members had come up with to squeeze more money out of the system.

His favourite example was the Tory MEP who had a flat in Brussels and yet for each Brussels-based committee session - which made up most of his month - would claim travel expenses from his constituency. In reality, he was taking a short taxi journey.

Allsop then adds that "all this was nothing compared to the Italians and Spanish, who made the worst of our MEPs seem positively saintly" – which is, of course, entirely true. Largely, the EU parliament is a cesspit of corruption and self-interest. Not least of the thinking of our own MEPs, in justifying their own actions, is that our continental "cousins" are even more venal.

But Allsop also offers his own explanation of why this corruption prevails. He takes the view that, "despite the heady ideals of its early days, the European Parliament is a complete irrelevance to most people in this country." That is why, he says, "the imaginative use of the expenses system has always gone on: there is nothing much else to do there. Creativity will always find an outlet."

There is more too it than that though. The very fact that our MEPs are over in Brussels means that they are "out of sight, out of mind". The political and media establishments who don't do "Europe" are as much to blame for their failure to scrutinise and hold to account these parasites.

Now that the issue is in the public domain though, it is interesting to reflect on just why the "story" should have caught on now, when for all those years, the facts have been there for the taking – and indeed have been reported sporadically by diverse journalists.

It all goes to show that, just because an issue is not in the news at any one time does not mean that it is not news – but it also shows the power the media still have to set the news agenda. Certainly, until they all pile in, it is not – in their terms - "news", a phenomenon easily reinforced by much of the blogosphere which prefers to take the lead from the MSM rather than attempt to set its own agenda.


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