THE BLOG

What the Point of a Local Newspaper, If Not to Keep Local MPs Honest?

06/03/2013 12:37 GMT | Updated 03/05/2013 10:12 BST

Last week was pretty rough for Nick Clegg. Victory in Eastleigh must have provided a touch of comfort, but his integrity and competence was repeatedly called into question as the Rennard scandal gained momentum, and worsened as his story unravelled day after day.

To cap it off, the chief executive of Sheffield council made a timely dig at his honesty, with a scathing letter correcting some untruths he'd spread about the state of the city's finances.

In an open letter to the city's council leaders, dropped on the local Liberal Democrats website on New Year's Day (presumably in the hope that all the good reporters would be too bleary eyed to notice) Clegg made a number of claims which turned out to be false. But one in particular caught my eye.

In his little moan about Sheffield council's proposed cuts to services, Clegg claimed the council had £167m sitting in "usable reserves", and it was "inexplicable that you have allowed this investment to sit in the Council's coffers when it should be used to protect front line services." Of course the local paper, the Star, which used to be a great paper (and is occasionally still a good one) dutifully printed Nick's claim under the headline Sheffield Council cuts controversy.

So here's where I get to crow a little. I, as it happens, stayed in on New Year's Eve, and wasn't at all derelict the next day. The £167m claim didn't ring true, and upon checking the council's statement of accounts for the year in question, my suspicions were borne out. The figure included all sorts of funds which were ringfenced at national level for specific projects, notably PFIs. It would have been illegal for the council to use the funds to plug the budget gap as Nick was suggesting.

Nick's line was a rather desperate piece of nonsense which relied on an understandable lack of knowledge of how local government finance works on the part of the public and a lack of will or ability to investigate on the part of the press to make the council's cuts seem mean and unnecessary.

Assuming for a moment that Nick and his army of advisers are bordering on competent, there’s no way any of them think what he’s saying accurately represents the truth. So we should call it what it is. A lie.

And this wasnt just any old lie. We expect lies from politicians. It’s what they do. No, this was a calculated, purposeful lie, with an agenda. It was a lie told by the second or third most powerful man in government. And it was a lie that was fantastically easy to refute, yet barely anyone did.

I posted the story on Political Scrapbook, only to find myself mildly smeared by local Liberal Democrats on Twitter as a Labour "campaigner" and "activist", which I'm not. In fact, I mentioned this to a friend who happens to be an actual Labour campaigner, who called me "the shittest Labour activist ever."

When I asked politely that the party retract their claims, they quietly blocked me.

Full credit to them, James Vincent and Toby Foster of BBC Radio Sheffield did a pretty fine job of grilling old Nick on his untruths a couple of days later. But the Star, ostensibly the organ whose major purpose to keep people like Mr Clegg honest, has yet to correct him on his numbers.

The problem here is not that journalists at the Star or elsewhere are lazy, or under resourced, or feel they have some nonsensical duty to report the view from nowhere. It's not even that they live in fear of having their sources of information cut off as press officers refuse them access to local MPs (or, say, block them on Twitter). It’s that the product of all of these factors is a political class who know they can say anything they like with little fear of reproach. We all rightly got in a fluster when councils started printing their own newspapers. But are we really much better off with the alternative? A servile, diminished local press that, in many cases, has lost the will to dig?

At university, I was taught that when interviewing a politician of any colour, the one question to hold in your mind is “why is this lying bastard lying to me?” That was good advice.