So, how much did you think the Telegraph paid for the information it’s been publishing for the last ten days? £10,000? £50,000? More?
According to the Times, the data CDs — which, no matter how much we have a right to see them, it appears may have been obtained through criminal activity — were being pedalled around for £250,000 for the disks and £50,000 for the analysis. An earlier price had been offered at £5,000 an MP, or £300,000 all in.
One man has already commented on the Times story, suggesting that the original source of the leak should be given a knighthood.
I am absolutely adamant that those expenses should have come out. I supported Simon Hughes and Norman Baker in their fight last year to force MPs to release them under Freedom of Information. I am entirely behind Heather Brooke’s five year campaign to get them out.
But paying £300,000 for what was, in all probability, a crime?
The sheer irony of this story is almost baffling. What gives the Daily Telegraph the moral authority to make someone richer to that amount, despite real doubts about the individual’s right to sell the information, and then to accuse some poor bloke of getting his light bulbs changed for a hundred quid?
What’s more, by simple dint of being the bearer of news, the Telegraph has set itself up as the nation’s judge on what expenses should be deemed acceptable.
One MP was pilloried by the Telegraph because she submitted her claims only a few weeks before the closing date. What? Either the claims were valid, or they weren’t. If they weren’t valid, then she should face the consequences. But the Telegraph has cleverly not claimed they were invalid, merely that they were close to the deadline. But how can submitting a valid claim close to the deadline be wrong?
Make no mistake about it. Whether or not they ever face the nation in court, some MPs have feathered their own nest at our expense. They have betrayed the public trust. They do not deserve to remain in our employ, and they should go.
But others have not.
Who should decide which is which? A special commission, perhaps? Popular vote at the next election, almost certainly. But the Daily Telegraph? Never.
This morning, the News of the World has published a list of politicians who should be sacked. But their list is not the list of the culprits who can be shown to be the ones who played the property market at our expense, or claimed for mortgages that did not exist. The News of the World list is simply a list of everyone the Telegraph has fingered. With no chance to explain themselves.
We have come to a terrible, terrible time. On the one hand, at least a proportion of our MPs are shown to be liars and cheats. On the other, our free press is stirring up mob frenzy, with little or no regard for the most elementary form of justice — that no-one is guilty until proven so.
At this point, I almost despair of our public life. We are headed into the European elections with the most likely beneficiaries being the BNP and UKIP. UKIP, that is, who have already lost an MEP to criminal charges of benefit fraud.
I almost despair, but I do not despair.
Some how, we will find a way through this. We will, because we must.
It will probably involve saying a permanent good bye to Gordon Brown. In retrospect, it’s hard to point to anything he has done since becoming Prime Minister which is remotely memorable or worth while. His handling of this affair has been something like a cross between Mr Bean and the Mister Men.
It may involve saying good bye to a generation of MPs who saw expenses not as a reimbursement but as an entitlement — political dinosaurs who could not adjust to a more questioning, less deferential age.
It will probably involve welcoming into the House a tranche of MPs who will discover, in time, that they are nowhere near as morally superior to those they replace as they thought they were.
It is already involving national soul-searching, as we ask the question: who, then, can we trust?
We all smiled when Obama offered Americans hope and a new start. In our smug, confident British way, no matter how much we detested (or simply found mildly comic) Blair and Brown, we knew that our politics was vastly better than the George W Bush regime. But now we need a revival and reawakening of the body politic just as radical as that promised by Barak Obama.
It is our turn to face the music.