Happily, I have never lived in a totalitarian state. But this week I was given an insight into what it must have been like in the dark days of East European Communism to receive the infamous knock on the door from those delightful individuals who once did the dirty work of the Stasi and the KGB.
In my case, it came in the form of an email from the Daily Telegraph, informing me that I had “questions to answer” about my living arrangements in London in the three years after I was elected to Parliament in 2005.
My conscience was perfectly clear, and after reading the “accusations”, I knew there was nothing for which I had to answer and duly contacted the reporter to explain the situation.
But frankly, I might not have bothered. Sadly, such is now the Telegraph’s thirst and hunger for making mischief since obtaining the records of MPs’ expenses, that it has long since abandoned the idea of fair and honest reporting.
Of course, some MPs have deservedly been exposed for the misuse of public funds, be it claiming for non-existent mortgages, “flipping” between homes, or claiming a fiver for a wreath they bought for Remembrance Sunday.
But now the newspaper has turned it into a McCarthyite witch-hunt for the sake of a circulation increase. It is doing the reputation of British journalism a lot of damage.
Anyway, I phoned the reporter, and began to explain the situation, but it did not take me more than a few seconds to realise that she had no intention of engaging in a fair and proper conversation. She – or rather the Telegraph’s newsdesk – had already decided that they were going to run a story about me and whatever I said was not going to change that. Her attitude was aggressive and sometimes downright rude, and it left a sour taste once I put the phone down.
I then waited with baited breath for Wednesday’s Telegraph to come out, and when it finally did, I was stunned.
Stunned that my story had made its front-page lead; and stunned by the insidious implications, like referring to me as a millionaire. What on earth is the relevance of that, whether I am or not? It was a grubby way of insinuating that I was some hard-nosed capitalist out to make an easy buck at anyone’s expense, and I deeply resent that.
For the record, the Telegraph implied that I had broken the rules by renting a flat in London that was bought by a company I founded, and ran, before becoming an MP, and that, essentially, I was paying rent to myself. Bunkum.
My company did buy a property near Westminster, but it was a commercial decision agreed to by the board of directors. It was the property of BCC Marketing, and it was perfectly correct that I pay rent. And let me make two points here: if I didn’t pay rent to BCC Marketing, I would have had to pay rent to another landlord and the rent I paid was all inclusive (council tax, utility bills, and so on), and cheaper than I would have paid for similar accommodation I might have rented privately.
And the company was about £38,000 down on the deal over the three-year period. So much for implying that I had diverted taxpayers’ money for my own personal benefit.
I had cleared my living arrangements with the Fees Office at Parliament, and then the rules changed, so I had to move out, though I appealed against the changes before I did so.
All in all, it is a non-story. My Northampton South constituency executive have always been aware of the situation and were perfectly at ease as I featured in news bulletins during the day. I obliged with all interview requests, because I was angry at what the Telegraph had done, the way it had ignored my explanations, and the damage to my reputation.
Thankfully, the local media in Northampton have been extremely professional in their treatment of the story. So much so, that constituents who were initially angered after first reading, or hearing, the “allegations” about me, and said so, have since been in touch to apologise and admit that further investigation reveals nothing. Exactly.
And this is the point. The Telegraph is doing enormous damage in its hunger to exploit the expenses scandal to its own commercial profit. Of course it did some good initially, and of course the expenses system needs an overhaul. I have been saying that since I first arrived at Westminster.
But this has gone too far, and it is about time someone stood up to them. They have taken it upon themselves to become judge and jury, without any thought to seeking the truth before they publish.
It reminds me of Rudyard Kipling’s famous quote for Stanley Baldwin: “What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”