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Last night’s Question Time: should Will Lewis get a knighthood?

Last night’s BBC Question Time got a lot of people talking, not least in regards to the heckling of MP Margaret Beckett. The Twitter comments were interesting to follow too, some of which Paul Canning has reproduced here on his blog

But here was the other story, as reported on the main Journalism.co.uk site: The Telegraph’s assistant editor, Benedict Brogan, on his newspaper’s handling of MPs’ expenses case. It started with a question from the audience: should the Daily Telegraph’s editor, Will Lewis, get a knighthood?

Is it surprising that 25 journalists have been working on the story? Was it a courageous act by the Telegraph to publish? Should they be forced to disclose details about how they obtained information?

Here is a transcript with a few of the repetitions removed for clarity:

George Park, member of audience:

“Should the editor of the Daily Telegraph be knighted for services to journalism and the British electorate?”

[Presenter David Dimbleby asks Beckett if she approves of Telegraph’s publication of the information]

Margaret Beckett, MP:

“I think I’m going to find myself on dodgy territory, again. Because one of the things that is not quite clear about this riveting story is exactly what the Telegraph has done.

“And one of the things that I think is causing considerable anxiety. Well, I know, because every member of Parliament, yesterday, was sent a formal letter from the fees office to tell us that the information which is now circulating, which it would appear the Telegraph has perhaps bought, I don’t know, contains not only details of the personal financial circumstances, account numbers, credit card numbers of every MP but also of all of our staff (…) Our staff, who are merely employees of members, whose details were all on file, of course, because they are paid through the fees office; they’re paid on their contract and all of that has been stolen, and that, I think, is not a good thing.

“I’m not suggesting the editor of the Telegraph stole it, but what I am saying is it would appear he is profiting from someone else’s theft.”

David Dimbleby, presenter:

“If he didn’t steal it, he might be accused by you of being a receiver of stolen goods, which is almost as bad, isn’t it?”

Margaret Beckett:

“Well, I’m no lawyer, ask the lawyer.”

David Dimbleby:

“Well ask Ben Brogan: is it theft to have all this information that was going to be published by the House of Commons, on a disc? In your offices? Is it theft?”

Benedict Brogan, assistant editor, the Telegraph:

“You can speculate as much as you like…”

David Dimbleby:

“Well, it doesn’t just land… It doesn’t fly through the sky and land. Someone comes along to you with a little disc and says ‘here you are do you want this?’ and you say yes. and presumably you pay for it?”

Benedict Brogan:

“David, you’ve been a journalist for even longer than I have and the fact is the first rule of journalism – you don’t discuss your sources, or how you got things.

“The fact is that the Telegraph has been working on this story for weeks: we’ve got 25 journalists working on it, lawyers, all sorts of experts looking at it, and I can assure you that a newspaper like the Telegraph, which is a serious newspaper, has not entered into this exercise lightly.

“The things we satisfied ourselves about, were one, that the information is genuine; and two, that it is in the public interest that we publish it.

“The fact is that if the Telegraph hadn’t published, it hadn’t taken what I would describe as fairly courageous action to put this out into the public domain (…)”

David Dimbleby:

“Why’s it courageous? Your circulation has gone up. You’ve had a story a day for seven days and from what one gathers another one tomorrow. And more the days after. What’s courageous about it?”

Benedict Brogan:

“You only have to look at the reaction of the political classes, and the hostility expressed towards the Telegraph to suggest that (…)”

David Dimbleby:

“Are you scared of the political class? What’s so brave about it? I don’t understand.”

Benedict Brogan:

“Not at all. When you heard that people were prepared to contemplate the possibility of legal action to prevent the Telegraph from publishing – this is something we had to consider. The fact is we considered it and we pressed ahead, and as a result the electorate, the British public,  are aware of something the MP’s did not want released and now people can see it for themselves and draw their own conclusions about their MPs.”

David Dimbleby:

“Ming Campbell, you’re a lawyer…”

Ming Campbell, MP:

“It used to be that the editor of the Daily Telegraph did get a knighthood because in those days it was essentially the house magazine of the Conservative party (…) Those days have long gone.

“I’m rather more sympathetic to Ben Brogan than you might expect, for this reason: just a little while ago in the House of Commons we had an incident involving Mr Damian Green. And what was Mr Damian Green doing? He was leaking information which had been supplied to him… And what seems to me to be very difficult is to take a high and mighty moral attitude about the leak of this information.

“What I do think though, and I understand why Ben Brogan might like to protect his sources, is that perhaps to demonstrate the commercial ability of the Daily Telegraph, and its auditor! Its editor! Freudian slip there you may have noticed (…) tell us precisely how much they paid.”

Benedict Brogan:

“As I said earlier, the key thing earlier is to not discuss sources, so I’m not going to get into that. You may try but I’m not going to get into that.”

Ming Campbell:

“Transparency, transparency, transparency!”

David Dimbleby:

“Do you know the answer for the question I’m asking you, even if you won’t give it?”

Benedict Brogan:

“I probably shouldn’t even tell you if I know the answer (…)  the politicians can try to distract us from the matter at hand by talking about the processes as to how the Telegraph got hold of it (…) what is important is what we now know about our MPs (…)”

David Dimbleby:

“The lady [up there] made a point that the newspapers had some responsibility to report positive things as well as negative things (…) What do you make of that?”

Steve Easterbrook, CEO of McDonald’s UK:

“I don’t hand out many knighthoods… To me there are aspects of cheque book journalism, if that’s what it is, which are pretty unsavoury and pretty sordid, particularly when they’re invasive and they disrupt people people’s lives and I certainly don’t approve of that. But on this case I am pretty comfortable that this is in the public’s best interest. Or in the tax payers’ best interest, to be honest with you.

“But it does require balance: I think we’d all like to see some good news, some balance put to this  (…)  How many MPs out there do play the game straight, give us hope and can give us some positive belief?

“(…) Perhaps we [the panel] haven’t gauged the mood of the country. I spend a lot of time in restaurants, that’s my job, chatting to staff, chatting to customers.

“Not one of them has ever made the comment ‘wasn’t the newspaper wrong to print it’. All the conversations is about the actual detail of course, and we shouldn’t fly against the mood of the country on this one.”

Member of the audience:

“I think the Daily Telegraph have actually done a very good job; they’ve made something transparent that should have already been transparent, and that’s what our money’s been spent on.”

George Park, member of the audience:

“Surely the main reason why the Telegraph had to do this, was because the Speaker, and people like him, were trying to suppress this information. And it gave the Telegraph so much credibility because of all of these people were dragged screaming and kicking to make all this information known…”

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