Belfast Telegraph

Sewel scoop shows cleaner tabloid Press has mojo back

By Paul Connolly

The grainy images of the haughty Labour peer Lord Sewel sniffing 'cocaine' and cavorting with prostitutes at his taxpayer-subsidised London flat are a welcome vindication of the traditional tabloid exposé.

The article should be on the syllabus of every journalism course in the UK as a reminder of how important tabloid journalism can be in a democracy.

It should be preferred reading, too, for every party political whip, politics student and advocate of restrictions on freedom of the Press.

The simple truth is that there are - and always will be - people in power who have ghastly, even sinister secrets. Most politicians are honourable people, who are in politics for the right reasons.

But in a profession where sleight of tongue and the ability to spin go hand in glove, it is bound to attract some rotten apples.

Of course, any job attracts its slimeballs: journalism, the legal profession, medicine, truck-driving, business, whatever. But the difference in politics is the power and the ability to exercise it.

When the corrupt hold power over ordinary people, the health of society is at risk. Even if they are not actually corrupt in a monetary sense, how can someone befuddled with drugs or distracted by personal scandal be trusted to run a country or an institution?

The last big tabloid sex and drugs scandal was the Methodist minister Paul Flowers, chairman of the stricken Co-op bank, which, you'll recall, managed to lose £700m in half-a-year.

The Mail on Sunday revealed, backed by undercover filming and text message records, the true depths of his sordid life.

Text messages suggested Flowers was buying and taking drugs in the days surrounding his testimony to the Treasury committee on November 6 the year before, when he tried to explain to Parliament his bank's disastrous performance.

One of the messages read "Have 2 bags of Charlie here and have ordered another 5...enough? Px"

Another read: "This ket is superb! Hot lots of it too - when do you want some?" 'Charlie' and 'ket' are slang for cocaine and ketamine (a legal anaesthetic used by drug-users to generate highs).

After his grilling at the Commons, he headed back to Manchester to "get wasted". It's not surprising the man did not know his bank's resources, or that it had been inadequately supervised on his watch. His performance at the Commons was disastrous.

The tabloid press hasn't had a good few years. The illegal phone hacking conspiracy closed the News of the World and sent several people to prison (and with good reason; phone hacking is illegal).

But the expansion of the corruption probes into payments to public servants for stories has disintegrated and become an embarrassment to the Establishment.

Let's remind ourselves who Lord Sewel is. He was, until the Sun's exposé, the £84,500 a year Deputy Speaker of the Lords, which he held for three years, and chairman of the Lords privileges and conduct committee.

In other words, his job was to ensure members of the House of Lords deployed appropriate conduct and did nothing to bring the upper house of Parliament into disrepute.

He blew that one wide open too, didn't he, not just with the sex and suspected drug use, but with his disgraceful remarks about Asian women and his misleading answers on how much expenses Lords can avail of (£300 a day, not £200).

He's now facing a Metropolitan Police investigation into "allegations of drug-related offences" following a search of his property.

At least the nature, composition and privileges of the House of Lords are again being debated thanks to the Sun's scoop. My own personal view is that it does valuable work but that it needs reform, including the scrapping of life peerages.

I do hope the Sewel scandal is evidence of two things: that the tabloid Press has cleaned up its act, and, having done so, that it is recovering its mojo.

Belfast Telegraph

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