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The lessons from the Westminster Accounts

The lessons from the Westminster Accounts

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This week Tortoise and Sky News launched our database tracking the money flowing into British politics. What it found surprised even the most seasoned of journalists

Transcript

Over the past few years, I’ve come to think that there are two kinds of journalism: reporting the story when the news comes along; and going out to find it. There’s skill, judgement and intelligence – in both senses of the word – needed when the news happens: when the Queen dies, when Russia invades Ukraine, when the NHS teeters or the Brazilian capital is stormed by protesters; and there’s doggedness, digging and a determination to challenge that’s essential if you’re going out to find out what’s really happening, the stories that aren’t going to walk into the studio or come in over the wires.

The fact is that few newsrooms do both well. It’s hard. And the reality is that there are pitfalls in both: the newsroom that just reports the stories that come along, even with insight and talented story-telling, but without an appetite for going out to find the news can fail their audiences by being chroniclers of the times, peddling a safe, establishment diet of news, one that fails to question and challenge, one that misses the changes in lives, habits and opinions. But then, the newsroom that’s all about its own stories can be captured by the agenda of its own journalists rather than its audience, can fall foul of what I like to think of as “Flaming Sword of Truth” syndrome, i.e. an excess of belief in its own righteousness and the corruptibility of everyone else, and it can miss what matters in pursuit only of recognition of what it cares about.

But all newsrooms these days are pushed in one direction or another, whether by their journalistic culture or by their financial model, or both. And yet, I fear, we in the media aren’t talking about this enough. There’s a menu of issues that we journalists discuss, in fact like to discuss – fake news, impartiality, privacy, campaigning, news deserts etc. All important, but they’re well-trodden. And yet, how much do we newsrooms ask ourselves about the mix – how many stories did we go out and get, how many did we report when they came along? And might that be a better way of asking the key question: what are we doing to get to the truth that matters to people?

I’m James Harding, I’m the Editor of Tortoise, and I ask this because, at the end of a week in which we and Sky News published the Westminster Accounts, I want to mention two things I’ve learned about politics – but also one about journalism.

The Westminster Accounts has been a project nine months in the making. A nine-month effort to go and find out what’s really going on. Sky News asked us to work with them to try and organise an open, easily usable database that tracks the movement of money into British politics. Who gives what? To whom? And for what? Earnings; donations; benefits.

The first lesson I learned is that there’s a world of difference between transparency and visibility. In fact, I’ve come to recoil a little when politicians boast of the “transparency” of the system. That’s because the Westminster Accounts organises reams of information, all of it publicly declared. In other words, all the information has been out there – it’s been available, but it’s been impossible to see a clear picture of what’s going on. In other words, transparent, but not visible. 

The second lesson – and this might come as a disappointment if you think journalists always want to show they’ve found the smoking gun – is that the Westminster Accounts overwhelmingly show the integrity and public service of MPs and the Palace of Westminster. It’s not the case they’re all on the take; it’s not that they’re all in it for themselves. For example, the Westminster Accounts make it clear, for the first time, that it’s a small minority – about 5 per cent of MPs – who make the vast majority of the money – £17 million so far this parliament, earned from second jobs. 

In fact, only 36 MPs – the likes of Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Geoffrey Cox and others – declared earnings of over £100,000. And those 36 MPs collectively took in £13 million of that £17 million. I.e. a group of just over 5 per cent of those sitting MPs took in over 75 per cent of all MPs’ earnings, leaving the other 614 odd MPs with the remaining quarter – in fact, many earn nothing at all.

And that’s what must surely enrage politicians and public servants about those who seem to operate to a different set of standards. At the end of the week, the MPs’ Register was updated; and then it showed that Boris Johnson, the former prime minister, had taken a £1 million donation from Christopher Harborne, a Thailand-based businessman and crypto-investor, who has previously donated significantly to the Brexit cause. It’s not a declaration of earnings; this is not for a book or a speech. It’s a £1 million donation to the Office of Boris Johnson. So what is it? Is it funding for a leadership campaign? Is it a new way of financing the former prime minister’s lifestyle? It’s either a big threat to Rishi Sunak’s premiership or a serious challenge to the reputation of the Conservative party in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. And either way, it’s a story – and one that, for all the integrity of politicians generally, poisons the well of public confidence.

But here’s the lesson about journalism. The one that I’ve found refreshing, invigorating; the one that’s put me happily in my box. It’s only one story. It’s the story that happens to have emerged from the Westminster Accounts that has got me going. But other people have found their own stories; ones that have got them going. The most exciting thing about the project is that it’s a piece of journalism that has produced not a story, but a tool: a means for other people to find stories. And over the course of the week, we’ve heard from people who’ve said, in one way or another: “Look what we’ve found!” And it’s been patterns of funding by water companies to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on water; or it’s been property developers into the Conservative Party; or local MPs taking donations from businesses they’d apparently criticised. And more and more. The Westminster Accounts tool was used more than half a million times in its first four days. We’ve barely seen not just what we’ll learn from the data, but what we’ll learn from other people using the data as a lead. 

And so it’s set me thinking at the start of 2023. The world might be, happily, just that bit more complicated. Maybe there are more than two kinds of journalism. Not just the stories we report when the news comes along; and the ones we go after. But the journalism we do that enables others to find the truth that matters to people. 

It’ll come as no comfort to the data journalists, graphic editors, reporters, researchers and editors who put the Westminster Accounts together over the last nine months, but it’s got me thinking: what should we do next?