Sunday 25 January 2009

A tale of two Sunday scoops

Part of the point of Sunday newspapers is that they have all week to dig up stories that the daily newspapers and 24/7 news cycle might miss.

Yet the very best that the Mail on Sunday could do this week - judging by what the editor chose for his front-page splash - was a "Treasury Knees Up" which amounts to Treasury staff paid for a £30 a head Burns night dinner, with no free bar, which seems to have gone on as late as 11pm on a Friday night.

The report veers confusingly between various possible targets for outrage. The cavalier offensiveness at uncaring Treasury staff socialising during a recession depends, perhaps paradoxically, on their lack of consideration for public-spirited colleagues burning the midnight oil into the weekend. Attempts to convery the lavish appearance of people dressing up in kilts for an evening dinner collapse into mocking the parsinomy of the raffle prizes. What was Darling thinking of - or was he not thinking anything about it, not being there? In the end, we are left with a taxi driver ranting at the annoyance of a Scottish-themed event in London (as if Scotland were part of the United Kingdom or something).

If The Mail on Sunday wants to feel green-eyed about something, perhaps it should be the ability of the Sunday Times to carry out some actual investigative reporting, in its report and investigation into members of the House of Lords willing to boast about their ability to influence and amend policy and legislation.

With the obvious caveat that I know nothing about the individual cases beyond what is reported in the Sunday Times (and you can read the detail here), Baroness Royall is right to express "deep concern" and to promise to pursue the allegations "with the utmost vigour".

Such investigations into any form of lobbying can often contain more than a hint of the 'mark' exaggerating the influence they would exercise. The rules are rightly very clear that peers "must never accept any financial inducements as an incentive or reward for exercising parliamentary influence" and of course the reputation of Parliament depends on the spirit as well as the letter of this being seen to be observed.

That the distinction between Parlimenatary and non-Parliamentary business is flawed and open to abuse also seems clear. A more thorough overhaul of the regulation of outside interests - in both Houses - remains overdue.

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