The Daily Telegraph famously exposed expenses claims by MPs for a wealth of items including: chauffeurs, a floating duck island, dredging a moat, champagne flutes, cat food and even Maltesers. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. You don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to figure out that it was all probably the tip of the iceberg.
Following the scandal surrounding MPs’ expenses, Channel 4’s Dispatches – led by journalist Antony Barnett – put together an undercover investigation that delved into the mostly unregulated world of political lobbying. The programme revealed respected politicians offering to help companies in exchange for profit, with former cabinet minister Stephen Byers memorably describing himself as "a cab-for-hire". I bet he’ll never hail a black cab again – talk about a photo opportunity!
To snare in the unsuspecting, Dispatches set up a fictional US public affairs company. They contacted several senior politicians and asked them if they were interested in a position on the advisory board of a bogus London office. The programme-makers contacted 20 politicians – 10 were invited in for interviews and nine of them were filmed secretly. The politicians featured in the undercover filming included: Geoff Hoon, Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt, Baroness Sally Morgan, Margaret Moran and Sir John Butterfill.
I watched, utterly repulsed but fascinated, as some agreed to help win government contracts via lobbying the right people. Part of me wanted to cry: ‘Stop! You’re on candid (and Candid) camera!’ Geddit? That’s one for the old skool; Candid Camera was a classic US hidden-camera television series. But of course, they didn’t stop.
There were even boasts of what had already been achieved for private corporate interests while some were still serving as MPs. It was like an episode of Deal Or No Deal with a contestant blinded by greed; instead of taking the few thousand already offered, they try and beat the Banker but end up going home with a fiver. If they’re lucky.
So on and on and on these politicians talked; it was toe-curling, cringe-inducing, explosive stuff. Now this is what I call reality TV. Today we learn that senior Labour figures are trying to distance the Government from Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon. They, alongside Labour backbencher Margaret Moran, have all been suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party following the airing of Channel 4’s Dispatches. All four deny any wrongdoing.
There are moments in current affairs that live long in the memory: Panorama’s naming and shaming of the four alleged Omagh bombers; World In Action putting the sword into Jonathan Aitken; Panorama exposing the dirty deals in football and everything the great ITV investigative reporter Roger Cook turned his hand (and formidable size) to in pursuit of the story. Just when I’d written off some TV investigative journalism for dumbing-down to Jeremy Kyle Show levels, this infamous edition of Dispatches showed the power of the genre.
Today I am mostly lovin’ – The repeats of Frasier on Comedy Central. It’s good to go back to the episodes before Niles and Daphne got together.
Today I am mostly hatin’ – I saw the cast for the new reimagining of Hawaii 5-0. I will reserve judgement (it might be good after all) but why not just come up with something new! Why keep plundering the archives?
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