Sunday, May 31, 2009

Do we give our MPs fair coverage?

I've blogged previously on the fairly predictable response by our readers to Keith Vaz's open letter in the Leicester Mercury last Saturday, but I've been back to re-read the letter because there was a part of it that was bugging me.

While I don't agree with much of what he threw at the Mercury - he says we have been unfair and claims to have answered our questions. I, along with the majority of our readers, disagree. Although we know what he spent money on, he has not explained why he thought it right to spend it other than to say it was within the rules. For me, one of the most telling lines in the letter was: 'All MPs get the same budget. It is for them to decide how they spend it.' Is it a budget?

Anyway, that's an ongoing debate which I don't want to get bogged down in today. The issue hasn't gone away - readers are still writing to me about it and I expect we'll see it reflected in next week's election results.

The point I want to pick up on in this post is the one that Mr Vaz makes about our lack of coverage of the work he does as an MP. He says this:
"In the last nine days I travelled to Amsterdam to visit Europol, chaired a European conference on human trafficking, published a 400-page report on the subject, chaired a series of meetings with Joanna Lumley and the Gurkha veterans, spent three days lobbying ministers to agree to the Gurkhas being given rights of settlement, interviewed the Metropolitan Police commissioner and spoken eight times in Parliament."
And that, of course, is on top of any work he did as a constituency MP.

He has a point. We didn't cover any of that.

It is easy to dismiss it as 'not local', as Mr Vaz acting in his capacity as a national politician, of more interest to the national press than his local paper. But that's not entirely fair. Mr Vaz is very active compared with most MPs - in the past year he appears to have spoken in 75 debates, asked more than 246 written questions and he sits on two select committees, including the Home Affairs Committee, which he chairs.

I can find Mr Vaz talking about, or asking quesitons about, Leicester in the House of Commons almost 30 times so far in 2009. In May alone, I can find these:
  • A quesiton about the number of children suspended in Leicester schools following racist incidents (if I read the answer correctly, far fewer than in the rest of England)
  • Urging the Government to pay attention to professor of genetics at the University of Leicester, Alec Jeffreys, when considering changing the rules on the retention of DNA samples by the police
  • A question about the number of independent and internal investigations into the NHS in Leicester - no answer was given.
  • A question about the number of care homes in Leicester operated by local authorities and private enterprises, and the number of people over 60 years old in them
  • A question asking for the number of people in Leicester diagnosed with schizophrenia and being held in secure hospitals
  • A question on the number of racist incidents recorded in Leicester schools. The Government replied that the data was not collected, but promised to consult on whether schools should be forced to record the data
  • A question on how much public money funds third sector organisations (charities, vluntary sector, not for profit organisations) in Leicester and Leicestershire
  • A question on the number of third party organisations in Leicester - the Government doesn't know
I'm not sure that we covered any of those in the Mercury.

As a standalone question, it is difficult to see what Mr Vaz was getting at with many of the above, but you have to assume there was a purpose behind the questions and I think he has a point when he says we haven't given him enough coverage.

Don't get me wrong - I don't think that we have treated Mr Vaz unfairly in our coverage on his allowance claims. Apart from anything else, we have twice handed over pages to him to have his say, unedited by us. On each occasion, our readers have reacted with anger at what he has said - it is easy for him to blame the messenger, but, on this occasion, I am afraid people really didn't like the message.

But, having said all of that, I don't think we are giving over enough space to the work of our MPs - and I suspect Mr Vaz will be amongst the most active. I'm going to talk to our newsdesk and our lobby correspondent to explore the possibility of doing a weekly column which rounds up what the MPs are up to.

What do you think, would it be interesting?

And given our article yesterday about the fact that nobody can even name our Euro MPs, perhaps we should be looking at them too!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting? No. Irritating? Yes.

    MP's are there for us and when we want them to act for us on a personal or local level if they do not deliver than what they do elsewhere is of no consequence, maybe if they we not elsewhere they could deal with the actual problems a constituent is having. So publishing a summary becomes PR for the MP and of no interest to anyone not directly involved.

    If an MP is working tirelessly in his constituency there is no need for such coverage because it will be covered locally, word of mouth will promote the MP. He will be seen to be looking after the people who put him there. What I expect - and very much why Vaz wants more positive coverage is the election next year. He wants to point at the Mercury column and show off all his virtuous deeds. You will become his puppet because he will immediately give someone the task of calling you weekly to give you the list of all his saintly deeds and letters wrote etc. Please do not fall into that. If you think it would be then use the time until the election to see what you would have published, see how things balance out - just because someone has less in the colum than Vaz does not mean they do less or are less worthy - and your column would be used as a political tool in that respect. It is also the case that MP's pay a lot more attention to their voters in the runup to an election. You would be adding to that and right now given the political atmosphere Vaz (and others) should have no more support from their paper than this time last year. Let's not beatify the guy.

    Vaz wants us to see how much good he is doing so (1) we do not go looking hard for any financial wrongdoing and (2) if we do find it we can forgive him because he obviously does so much good he cannot possible be on the take.

    We cannot trust Vaz. His parliamentary expenses have been exposed before. But we should trust our local paper. The Telegraph lead the way and hopefully there is a robust investigation from them and the Mercury. We have to be sure that when you publish - or not - that you have done our checking. Vaz buys 1 copy of your newspaper. If he chose not to, no loss.


Thanks for commenting - all comments are moderated, but will only be blocked if they are foul, abusive or libellous. Keith