By examining the media’s indifference to the Tories’ election cheating, ALEX WARD finds that it is ministers, not political correctness, that the media cowers before
IN THE last week, the Conservative Party has been fined a record £70,000 by the Electoral Commission, had police officers interview its MPs and had files on them from a year-long national investigation passed to the Crown Prosecution Service.
Yet the BBC has been happy to accept a Tory press-release line that these were “mistakes” and record it as factual, without quotation marks.
A flurry of coverage has followed, most of it accepting the party-political line that this election fraud case is down to a series of filing errors.
Reports have been cautious, reasonable and — in a British media defined by sensationalism — remarkable for how far they have avoided scandal.
Step back for a moment: the sitting government has been fined by the independent watchdog for cheating in marginal seats, in a way that might have made a difference to the outcome of the 2015 general election.
And yet from the tabloids, we get uncharacteristically sober headlines, such as: “Tories fined after investigation into wrongly reported election expenses.”
We’re often told that the media establishment fail to stand up to imported extremists and criminals because of “political correctness.” Yet this incident shows it is ministers, not foreigners, that our press still cower before.
Compare this week to another incident — the eight month furore over the last major election fraud case, that of former Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman.
Unlike with the Tories, the Electoral Commission investigated several times but did not issue any penalties and the court case that saw him removed from office was undertaken in the civil — not the criminal — courts.
The case concerned not the whole country, but the mayoralty of a borough comprising one smallish part of East London.
Yet well before there was any verdict at all, the Telegraph argued that the case was evidence of “a brutish, zealously religious, feudal society, imported from South Asia and allowed to flourish here unchecked because we haven’t had the guts to stand up for enlightened values.”
The Sun’s rent-a-gob Katie Hopkins reminded us that “this is Britain, not some banana republic where we cut people’s hands off.”
Coverage rolled for months before the court case and earned string after string of sensationalist headlines.
The case is more boring on examination than reporting suggested. The civil court judgment ruled that junior elected officials in Rahman’s party had provided false addresses on nomination forms, that payments had been made to allies in order to secure votes (one supposed recipient of such a payment later successfully sued for libel), that press releases pointing out an opponent’s record of contentious statements were unacceptable, and so on.
The police looked at the papers and found no grounds for criminal investigation.
Claims of rampant intimidation at polling stations were not upheld, and an obscure “spiritual injury” law not used since the 1880s was dredged up to argue that a letter from imams in support of Rahman constituted an attempt to religiously blackmail voters.
During the case, another letter from respected faith leaders was issued in a bid to influence the values and policies of candidates in the general election. No such case has been argued here.
Why was far more coverage devoted to the Rahman case than the nationwide Tory election fraud case is receiving?
They are not the only two examples. There have been a handful of similar malpractice cases in the last two election cycles.
One concerns Labour’s former immigration minister, Phil Woolas, who was barred from office after falsely claiming that his opponent supported Islamic extremists, in a campaign aimed at “getting the white vote angry.”
Another is the failed attempt to remove Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael over leaks in which he had allegedly lied about Nicola Sturgeon. These cases are not widely known and largely the preserve of political anoraks.
But Rahman, unlike Theresa May, Woolas or Carmichael, is not white. He was the first elected mayor from a Muslim background. And as we know from hatchet jobs run against the Tories’ Sayeeda Warsi, Labour’s Sadiq Khan and just about every British Muslim politician of note, that exempts the media from the normal rules of fair play.
We don’t need to defend anything Rahman may have done to note that a Muslim who runs into election law issues and becomes part of the “history of extremism,” allowed to flourish by “over-sensitivities about ethnicity and religion,” according to headline writers.
But meanwhile, the Conservative Party machine, its cogs greased along by money and Establishment connections, can run afoul of the law and have the majority of the media seemingly bow to pressure and accept the line that it was simply a filing mistake. It’s political correctness gone mad.