Labour’s expenses claims result in poor media coverage

MPs may claim they were treated unfairly by the media over their expenses, but one thing is for sure – they are going to claim for a lot less of everything in the future. Labour MPs in particular should be filling in their expense forms carefully, as a recent media audit commissioned by PRmoment shows that there has been more negative coverage of the Labour party than either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. 

It is not surprising that most coverage focused on Labour and Conservatives, and Conservatives definitely won the PR battle with only 28 per cent of stories being negative compared to 50 per cent for Labour. Although the Liberal Democrat Party was only covered about as third as much as the other two parties, it should also be proud of its PR efforts, as just 8 per cent of its coverage was negative.

Supplied by Echo Sonar

The Daily Telegraph led the way with coverage of the expenses scandal, and its sustained listing of MPs’ spending has resulted in the resignation of several MPs, notably the speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin. Will Lewis, editor of The Daily Telegraph, spoke publicly for the first time about the scandal on Sunday 28 June on BBC Radio 4 in a programme on the expenses affair, Moats, Mortgages and Mayhem. He strongly defended how the paper had covered the story, believing that the clearing out of Parliament in the wake of the stories was a good thing for the country: "It is going to open up Parliament to a whole new generation of people who understand what it means to be an elected representative of British citizens".

Supplied by Echo Sonar

It could be argued that as the Telegraph broke these stories, and as this is seen as a more right-wing publication, it is simply media prejudice that has made the Labour Party come out worst. Another argument, of course, is that Labour MPs have acted worst. According to the figures published by the Telegraph, of the top ten MPs who claimed the most on expenses in 2007/08, only one was a Conservative, two were Liberal Democrats and seven were Labour politicians.

The coverage of the scandal has included many stories that make fools of the politicians, with outlandish claims ranging from a £1.50 ice cube tray from Labour John Reid to a claim for £1,645 for a duck house from Conservative Sir Peter Viggers.

The first rule of dealing with the media at times when bad news comes out, says Gidon Freeman, director of public affairs agency Lexington Communications, is to make sure that all the bad information comes out as soon as possible and on your own schedule. Yet the MPs have clearly failed to do this. He says, “they have fought tooth and nail to keep information about expenses secret”. Freeman claims that MPs did have the opportunity to regain the initiative if they had acted quickly enough, but they effectively “blew that chance”.

As far as the Labour coverage goes, Freeman points out that as Labour is in power, it is inevitable that it will receive harsher treatment from the media. He adds that David Cameron also helped to boost the Conservatives with his quick response to the media, and the perception seemed to be that he was “part of the solution”. Talking about Gordon Brown’s poor depiction in the news, Freeman says: “It is awkward for Brown as he is making decisions that would have to be implemented as his party is in power, which means he is fenced in as to what he can do. Also, he has an old-fashioned delivery style which doesn’t help.”

Another reason for Labour doing worse in its coverage, says Clare Coffey consultant in public affairs at Hill & Knowlton, is because the electorate expects Labour MPs to be in politics for society’s general improvement and not for their own personal gain. She adds, “the electorate has inherent expectations of how the government should behave and essentially the government bares the responsibility for the entire system.”

Looking at the party websites further demonstrates how Conservatives have taken the lead in showing how they plan to move on after the expenses scandal. On conservatives.com, there is a clear section about MPs’ expenses. It includes coverage of Cameron’s response to the expenses revelations, for example: “David Cameron has announced a series of immediate measures to start to rebuild trust in politics and take action on the issue of expenses.”

On the Labour Party site, labour.org.uk, there is no obvious mention of the expenses (on 1 July), but there are links to a News of The World story on 17 May when Gordon Brown writes, "I will do all that's needed to fix this mess".  At the Liberal Democrat site, libdems.org.uk, there is also no obvious mention of the MPs’ expenses fiasco on 1 July. 

Methodology
PRmoment asked Echo Sonar to conduct a UK online media audit of MPs’ expenses coverage from 15 May to 29 June. The objective was to analyse media coverage surrounding MPs’ expenses in relation to the three leading political parties. Metrics included share of voice, total volumes of coverage and assessment of tone of coverage.

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