How did the Charles Kennedy defection story gain credibility?

Charles Kennedy, on the day I first met him in 1999

BBC — Charles Kennedy calls rumours ‘absolute rubbish’ On Saturday, several newspapers ran stories that former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy was in talks with Labour with a view to defecting. When the story was denied by the Liberal Democrat party, but not immediately by Charles Kennedy, many bloggers took this as a sign that the rumours were true.

Of course, Kennedy has now denied them, saying “I am not joining the Labour Party and have not had any discussions about it with anyone from the Labour Party.”

But the question remains, why did anyone think it was plausible in the first place, and why did newspapers choose to run an unsubstantiated story?

There are two issues here. The first is about the way the public — or, at least, some journalists and editors — see the natural relationships in politics. The Lib Dems have been perceived for a long time as a sort of ‘soft Labour’: during the Blair years, possibly even a refuge for Labour activists who felt they could not back their party on Iraq. Attempts by ‘Orange Book’ Lib Dems such as Oaten (remember him), Webb and Clegg to put forward a slightly right of centre economic theory were dismissed as pandering to potential Tory crossover voters. Very few people ever imagined that Lib Dems would really be involved in anything as unsocialist, or, indeed, anti-socialist, as the current coalition. Kennedy was the only Lib Dem MP who did not vote for the coalition. Therefore, he is the obvious candidate for defection. The fact that he is the ousted former Liberal Democrat leader lends spice to the story.

Was there ever a basis of fact? Was there some meeting or conversation that took place which could credibly have been misunderstood to have been about defection? Or was someone just making mischief, using their informal role as an informed source to possibly try and flush Kennedy out? We may never know.

Now to the other matter. If this had been a business deal, or a celebrity, or some such, there would have been talk of the Press Complaints Commission by now. Newspapers have a duty not to publish misleading stories, and the fact that a journalist may have been themselves honestly misled is not a defence. The onus is on the publisher to ensure that they do not mislead.

However, the moment a politician is involved, it seems that it is open season, and, really, anything goes. Journalists may believe that politicians get what they deserve, and anyone who puts themselves into the public spotlight gets what is coming to them. But the issue is really not the damage done to politicians, but the damage done to journalism, and by extension, to democracy.

Confidence in journalists, newspapers and politicians is more or less as far down as it can go. Even the expenses scandal of last year did not depress the stock market value of politicians very much. But is it really the job of journalists to keep it down at the bottom level?

Since I first decided to stand for parliament, back in 1998, people have asked me over and over again “why?” Sometimes it’s because they feel the cost/benefit isn’t very good, and they may well have a point. But most of the time they say something like: “You seem like a nice enough chap. Why would you want to get involved in that?”

Given that the vast majority of people in Britain will never meet their MP or their local councillor, this is rarely because of personal contact with MPs. In fact, people who know MPs personally generally regard the ones they know as really rather honourable. But there is an assumption that, as a class, they are scoundrels.

Perhaps MPs are. Perhaps our current crop are talentless good-for-nothings who bought their way into parliament with either trades-union backing, inherited money, or money earned through financial dealings of the kind that brought the economy to its knees. But if we persist in treating MPs as if they are guilty until proved innocent, we will never attract the next generation of MPs (if the current crop really are like that) who will be honest, hard-working servants of the people, in it out of duty and public service, not out of greed and self-aggrandisement.

As Winston Churchill pointed out, in democracy we get the government we deserve. But this is not just what we deserve when we go out and vote. It is what we deserve as a result of the stories we choose to put our trust in, the newspapers we choose to buy, the stories we choose to retell, to retweet, to post on Facebook or on blogs.

Unlimited press freedom comes, it seems, at a heavy price.