Chris Mullin: Contrary to opinion, we're not all at it

We despised representatives of the people have put up with many falsehoods

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Forgive me, but even at this dark hour, I cannot resist a wry smile at the sight of The Daily Telegraph posing as a champion of free speech and democracy. Please do not misunderstand – though I am sure somebody will – I do not seek to minimise the seriousness of what has occurred regarding MPs' allowances. I am – and have been from the outset – unequivocally in favour of transparency, however painful. As one of my colleagues remarked the other day, "we had it coming".

In 22 years in Parliament I have opposed all pay increases for MPs that are out of line with the rest of the public sector. In 2001, along with about 60 colleagues, I opposed the 42 per cent increase in the additional costs allowance which is the source of so many of our present troubles. I do not seek to pretend to be holier than others. The truth is that just about all of us are vulnerable in the current climate.

However, the sight of the Telegraph's political correspondent, Benedict Brogan, on Question Time last week, pompously refusing to disclose his sources when no one was asking him to do so was almost too much to bear. What, he was asked, had his paper had paid the person who stole the now famous expenses disc. A minor matter maybe, given the wider issues at stake, but not an unreasonable question in this age of transparency.

The Daily Telegraph has never been above practising a little fraud on its readers. When I first visited Vietnam, in 1973, I was amazed to discover that the paper's Saigon correspondent, whose reports appeared almost daily under the byline John Draw, was in fact Nguyen Ngoc Phac, an officer working for General Cao Van Vien, chief of staff of the Southern army.

So blatant was the arrangement that Phac used to appear in uniform at the Reuters office to tap out his reports. It wasn't that his dispatches resembled the official line. They were the official line.

When I got home I raised the matter with the then Telegraph editor, the late Bill Deedes, but I couldn't get a straight answer out of him.

In 1976, after the fall of the fascist regime in Portugal, someone walked into the Ministry of Information in Lisbon and emerged with a file on a journalist who reported for the Telegraph from Portugal's African colonies, where fierce wars were raging. The file – a copy of which I still retain – showed he was in the pay of the Portuguese secret police.

True, under the editorship of Max Hastings and Charles Moore, the Telegraph enjoyed a period of respectability, but lately – having fallen into the hands of the Barclay Brothers – it has become little more than a broadsheet version of the Daily Mail. Indeed, many of the new masters, Mr Brogan included, were recruited from the Mail.

Under their tutelage, much of the Telegraph's political and economic reporting has become, frankly, doo-lally. My personal favourite among the many ludicrous stories that in recent years have adorned what passes for the Telegraph news pages was headed "Brown raised taxes to the highest level in 20 years". Pinch yourself and then ask "Who was prime minister 20 years ago?". Why, none other than the Telegraph's beloved Margaret Thatcher. And for how long had she been prime minister? Eight years. Good God, if all a Labour government managed in its first 10 years was to raise taxation to the level that it was under Mrs Thatcher at the height of her ascendancy, Middle England can surely sleep easy in their beds.

Among the many falsehoods that we poor, inadequate, despised representatives of the people have had to put up with over the years is the oft-repeated suggestion that when Parliament is not sitting we are all sunning ourselves in the south of France. (I have lost count of the number of times, on a sunny summer's evening, even coming down the steps of my office, I have been slapped on the back by a passing constituent remarking, "All right for you with your three months' holidays".)

More serious is the suggestion that we are all somehow pocketing the money we are given to employ staff and run an office. This is an old favourite with our most loathsome tabloids, but lately it has migrated. This, for example, was an ignoramus called Ian Cowie in the Money section of the Telegraph on 4 April: "Now that the average MP claims £135,600 a year for expenses – yes that's right, more than five times national average earnings – this means they avoid paying £54,000 a year tax which HMRC would demand from anyone else lucky enough to receive such payments."

Mr Cowie expounded on this thesis over the best part of two pages and returned to the subject last week. In what other profession would staff salaries, office rent, utility bills, the rent of photocopiers and so on be counted as income? In 22 years, not a penny of that money has ever touched my bank account.

Perhaps the most outrageous recent example of the growing culture of impunity when it comes to discussing alleged corruption by the political classes was the front page of the Daily Mirror on 31 March under a banner headline "THEY ARE ALL AT IT". The story, by one Bob Roberts, began "Greedy MPs pocket an average £144,176 in expenses on top of their bumper salaries, shock figures revealed yesterday..."

Actually, we are not all at it. The only place I have ever worked where they were "all at it" was Mirror Group Newspapers in the 1970s. There, at the end of the first week, my expenses were rejected by the man who was supposed to vouch for their accuracy on the grounds they were so low they would embarrass everyone else in the office.

I was then treated to a short course in how to construct a fraudulent expense account which, when no one was looking, I threw away.



Chris Mullin is MP for Sunderland South. His diaries, 'A View from the Foothills', have just been published by Profile Books at £20

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