telegraphmpexpenses
Whether its coverage of the MPs' expenses scandal is 'investigative journalism' is a moot point for many journalists, but very few dispute that the Telegraph has accomplished a fine feat of reportage: hundreds of compelling broadsheet pages; wide-reaching political implications and reform; a global talking point; and a victory in the fight to make British politicians more accountable. 

At a Frontline Club event last week only a few people, from the albeit small audience, put their hands up to say they disagreed with the Telegraph's alleged payment for the data, a point which panel member Andrew Pierce, assistant editor of the Telegraph - predictably - refused to be drawn on.

The war cry has been 'traditional journalism at its finest': not only crowed by the Telegraph's Pierce and Benedict Brogan in national media appearances, but by countless media onlookers. Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter praised the 'epic series' and the 'paper's biggest investigation in its 154-year history' in his editors' letter, for example.

But while the Telegraph's MPs' expenses coverage is a victory for transparency in politics, critics, such as the freedom of information specialist Heather Brooke and WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange, have claimed the paper has been less than transparent about its own processes and data. The newspaper, they say, has published very little of the data in a form that is useable for other individuals and journalists.

Legal risk or too much focus on the 'scoop'?
The Telegraph might argue that there is legal risk in publishing the raw data in its unedited form, which is why it cannot share it. Critics, however, suggest that sensitive information could be removed and evidence cited in stories shared in a useable format.

Every news organisation should have a data store, Paul Bradshaw, journalism lecturer and publisher of the Online Journalism Blog, argues in a blog post

Brooke says the paper has failed by not being more overt in its use of the data. While she believes the biggest onus is on the government to publish the data, she says the paper could have made more use of its resources.

"The government is the one that had it initially and it's their job to make it publicly accessible. [But] the Telegraph did get hold of it and they do share some responsibility to make public their evidential material," she tells Journalism.co.uk.

"I would like more done - more could be published of the raw material. When the Guardian did a big piece like BAE, they had a whole load of the raw documents [for use]. I think they [the Telegraph] have failed in their democratic responsibility in that respect."

Brooke suggests there should be 'some public record stash that the people could start going to'. "I think they [the Telegraph] missed a trick on that because it would give a lot of public interest as well," she says.

The paper shared some raw information, as in the case of Conservative MP Douglas Hogg, but not enough, she says. "This is my main problem with the Telegraph - they're not actually interested in the general democratic principles of what the story uncovers; they're interested in the scoop.

"But I think there is a democratic responsibility: the press has to be the 'fourth estate', and be responsible for letting the public judge for themselves."

What happens to the data now?
Julian Assange, editor of WikiLeaks, the site which publishes and comments on leaked government or corporate documents, is not concerned by whether the paper did or did not pay for the information.

"The end result is that those middle-men get an important story out to the public, so they have an important function whether it's paid or not. I would actually say it's a strength of UK journalism that newspapers are willing to pay for information, whereas the New York Times won't; the Washington Post won't engage in chequebook journalism," he tells Journalism.co.uk. 

Nonetheless, Assange is troubled by the Telegraph's secretive handling of the data: "Those documents are historically important. It's rare that government will make them public [in the original form]; normally they want to sweep over them.

"[If] the article is important enough to write, then the underlying public material should be put into public archives."

Gordon Brown has announced his intention to release the data on MPs' expenses online as soon as possible, but this may well not be in the same form seen by the Telegraph.

Asking questions about Telegraph's own process
Making material about the Telegraph's own process publicly available could also be useful. Tony Hirst, an expert in data at the Open University, has made a comparison of coverage by the Isle of Wight based Ventnor Blog, and coverage by the Telegraph, of local MP Andrew Turner's expenses claims.

The Ventnor blog's reproduction of the question and answer exchange between the Telegraph and Turner's office raised questions about the handling of the story (later picked up by Journalism.co.uk), such as whether the Telegraph's headline had been misleading about Turner's expenses claims. 

Although not the Telegraph's responsibility, other media outlets appear to have used the paper's information after trawling the its stories, and subsequently have missed the nuances of wordings in some of their own reports. The issue of verifying second-hand material was raised at the Frontline debate (video available at this link).

Pierce told the Frontline audience that the paper had only published one correction for the 240 broadsheet pages produced at the time of speaking [Monday June 8]; Matthew Cain from the Media Standards Trust noted on the Press Review blog, that this 'of course is true, if they only made one mistake'.

Enquiries made by Journalism.co.uk to the Telegraph's press office - the Telegraph does not have a readers' editor - on these issues have received one or two line responses. Requests for information made directly to journalists were referred to the press office.

The newspaper did not wish to respond to this site's questions about other amendments, or alleged errors spotted by bloggers and commenters.

Early on, Journalism.co.uk made a request for an official statement by the paper about its procurement of the data, and the press office instructed us to watch the BBC interviews. Our request for facts regarding alleged inaccuracies in stories were met by these statements: "The Telegraph does not discuss its private correspondence with individual Members of Parliament. The Telegraph prides itself on its high standards of journalism. The Daily Telegraph does not discuss individual cases."

What do you think? Should the Telegraph be more open about its handling of the 'Expenses Files'?  Leave your comment below, or email judith at journalism.co.uk with your thoughts. 

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