NEWS: Journalists and MPs gain a lot by scratching each other’s backs

Sir Anthony Beaumont-Dark, former Tory MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, is no longer a name to conjure with. He hasn’t been for four years since he lost his seat. Yet once he epitomised the symbiotic relationship between MPs and political journalists. Scarcely a day passed by than Sir Anthony’s views were on record. He was one of the most reliable rent-a- quotes in the Palace of Westminster.

Sir Anthony Beaumont-Dark, former Tory MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, is

no longer a name to conjure with. He hasn’t been for four years since he

lost his seat. Yet once he epitomised the symbiotic relationship between

MPs and political journalists. Scarcely a day passed by than Sir

Anthony’s views were on record. He was one of the most reliable rent-a-

quotes in the Palace of Westminster.



I am reminded of his passing by events in the High Court where more

light is being thrown on the curious relationship between MPs and media

by spy writer Rupert Allason, Tory MP for Torbay. He is suing two former

Mirror writers - one of them Labour leader Tony Blair’s spin doctor,

Alastair Campbell - over a story about his alleged concern - or lack of

it - for Robert Maxwell’s Mirror pensioners after winning pounds 250,000

or so in libel damages from the paper.



The case spotlights the ancient art of Early Day Motion (EDM) writing

with which the PR industry is not entirely unacquainted. It has emerged

that another Mirror journalist wrote an EDM, signed by 50 MPs,

suggesting Mr Allason might usefully hand over his winnings to Mirror

pensioners.



And the estimable Chris Moncrieff, former political editor of the Press

Association, cheerfully told the court of journalists dictating EDMs to

MPs to provide ‘a stronger peg to hang a story on’. In return MPs get

publicity.



There is, of course, nothing new in this. It may not say much for the

spontaneity of news or MPs’ independence. It says even less for those

journalists who demanded that I, as No 10 Chief Press Secretary, should

have an open, on-the-record relationship with them while they maintained

their shabby, undercover symbiosis with MPs. But it is a fact of life,

driven by the reporter’s overriding need to produce stories and

sometimes by political prejudice masquerading as crusading journalism.



Which brings me to the worst of it. This collusion between journalist

and MP can, in its worst form, prostitute the very purpose of the

privilege which is provided by the Commons’ Order Paper. The immunity

from prosecution, both for the MP who makes the allegations in an EDM

and the journalist who broadcasts them, is obviously intended for use in

extremis.



In my experience, extremis has an elastic definition. Indeed, I know of

a case where a broadsheet printed with impunity a story based on an EDM

which an MP failed to table.



I hesitate to suggest more work for Lord Justice Nolan, but if he is

concerned about honesty in public life, he might helpfully lift the veil

on the relationship between MPs and journalists and the contrived

rubbish which finds its way on to the order paper as a result.



Sir Bernard Ingham writes for the Daily Express



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