Why I had to expose the MPs’ expenses scandal
Why would anyone take the risk of exposing widespread corruption in government?
For me, it was a quirk of fate that was to change my life – and that of so many British politicians.
I’d worked for two of Britain’s top three PR firms before setting up my own business, Positive Profile, an ethical PR firm based in the City of London. In over 20 years in the business, I had established a reputation for honesty, integrity, discretion and incorruptibility.
Which is why, one day, I took that fateful phone call that was to turn my life – and those of hundreds of Members of Parliament – upside down.
The man on the telephone was someone I’d done business with before: I’d helped him a few years earlier in launching the first-ever annual travel insurance covering piracy of ships.
This time, he asked my help in making something public and explained what could be made available if I agreed: every receipt of every MP of every political party going back five years.
The data was a result of another American’s five-year court battle under the Freedom of Information Act to make politician’s expenses public. Every time she won her case, the government appealed – until she won in the highest court in the land and there was nowhere else they could appeal to.
The court ruling was quite clear: the government had a legal duty to make the information public. But the politicians hadn’t given up: they continued to stall the process and, in doing so, kept censoring the information before making it available.
After the third round of censorship (or “redaction” as they preferred to call it), a whistleblower on the inside realised the government would never obey the law and make the information public, so tried to take the matter into their own hands.
They went to a national newspaper and offered the information for free. But the newspaper made them a counter offer: £350,000 for the ‘scoop’ if they could destroy one political party and suppress half the information to protect another party.
The whistleblower declined their offer, at which point the newspaper allegedly tried to prevent another paper from getting the scoop by informing the government that there was a mole on the inside who had to be stopped.
It was at this point that I was asked to help. I immediately realised the trouble I could get myself into by agreeing, including being arrested or deported.
But while thoughts of all the terrible consequences that might happen ran through my mind, I also knew how important it was to take a stand and be counted, so I immediately agreed.
I thought that, in spite of the potential danger, all I had to do was make a single phone call to one decent newspaper – and possibly attend an introductory meeting – and then walk away clean.
The deal we were looking for was fairly straightforward: all we really wanted was that the paper that got the story should agree to cover everyone who was found to have abused their expenses, regardless of political party.
But we also wanted to protect the whistleblower, so also asked for either a legal indemnity for that person (not for me or the man who called me) or, if not, a ‘fighting fund’ for their legal expenses.
But, instead of placing the story with the first newspaper I called – and to my utter surprise and amazement – it took nearly four months of having to talk to half the newspapers and newspaper groups in the country before I was finally able to strike such a deal with the Daily Telegraph.
Some papers wanted to destroy Labour and protect the Conservatives; other papers the reverse. Some only wanted to expose the ‘big shots’, not the ‘little guys’, while others were only interested in covering the ‘sexy stuff’ but not the ‘boring stuff’.
Eventually, of course, the Daily Telegraph agreed the deal, paying £110,000 for the story – significantly less than the amount originally offered to the whistleblower and a lot less than the £500,000 one national newspaper editor told me the story was worth to them, but enough for the whistleblower to defend themselves in the High Court if necessary.
I was offered a significant sum of money myself, but turned it down: I knew that as soon as the story was made public, the government would squeal like a stuck pig and accuse us of ‘selling stolen goods for ill-gotten gains’ – which is exactly what the Speaker of the House of Commons did (before subsequently making history by becoming the first CommonsSpeaker to resign in over 300 years). So I felt it was important that someone in the chain could put their hand on their heart and say they hadn’t done it for money and hadn’t been paid
The only thing I asked the Telegraph for – which they immediately agreed to – was a free subscription to their newspaper.
But five years on, I have yet to receive a single copy of the Telegraph newspaper for the free subscription they’d promised me, but never delivered on.
So was it all worth it?
A number of MPs and members of the House of Lords were imprisoned for fraud or theft and well over 100 MPs lost or gave up their seats at the next General Election.
Thanks to my efforts, MPs were forced to repay well over £1,000,000 in unfairly claimed expenses.
And as soon as the story became public, the leaders of all three political parties went on national TV to express their shock and horror, and to promise to clean up the system – and I offered all three of those parties my help in doing so.
But my offer was never accepted and, as far as I can tell, the only change in legislation of any substance was to double the amount MPs can claim on expenses without showing a single receipt from £4,500 to £9,000 a year.
So, knowing what I now know about how things turned out, both for me and the country, I was asked if I’d still do the same today.
And the answer is simple: I would have to.
Henry L Gewanter
Managing Director, Positive Profile Limited
Positive Profile Limited is a leading public relations, advertising and marketing consultancy.
If you’ve been inspired by this blog post, click on the button in the sidebar to be notified about future posts.