Channel 4 News let itself down over the Zac Goldsmith expenses story

Channel 4’s investigation into Zac Goldsmith’s general election expenses has not been a good advert for new politics, or indeed for old journalism.

Let’s deal with Goldsmith first.  Clearly there is a case to answer on his expenses.  Whether it’s posters paid for by council candidates that don’t mention the council campaign, or jackets with stickers on where only the stickers are counted as an expense, it doesn’t look good.  His defence – that all election candidates follow the rules in the same way he did – is a poor one.  It’s practically an admission of guilt. 

His appearance on Channel 4 News should also be used as an example to all politicians of how not to defend yourself against an allegation.  He must have seen enough of them giving this sort of interviews during the parliamentary expenses scandal – watch a few of those tapes, Zac.  Spending the first eight minutes arguing over the content of emails about whether or not he had agreed to be interviewed – supposedly, his honour had been traduced – made him look childish.  When you already have a hairstyle more suited to a student union bar than the House of Commons, appearing like an adult should be priority number one.

But for the most part, I am disappointed with Channel 4 News for its handling of this.  First of all, Jon Snow was every bit as guilty for spending those eight minutes arguing over emails.  It made bad tv and gave the viewers nothing.  Why didn’t he just give Goldsmith a minute or two to say whatever he wanted to say about the emails?  He could have responded with a line like, “I’m confident our viewers know we always strive to give those we are investigating every opportunity to defend themselves, so if you want to raise this with Ofcom go ahead,” and then moved on to the actual accusations.  Instead he engaged in the detail of the emails in a very unconvincing way.  I can only assume that Snow’s massive ego was bruised by the accusation over his journalistic ethics, and he just couldn’t let it go.  In future, Jon, just let the viewers make their own minds up.

About the investigation as a whole, Channel 4 News has done a poor job of explaining why they are focusing on Zac Goldsmith alone.  In the original piece and in the interview with Goldsmith, they mention that they looked at lots of MPs and Goldsmith’s stood out as the campaign that appeared to spend the most money while remaining below the spending limit.  Maybe that’s true, but where’s the evidence?  On both occasions this explanation was given to us as an aside – it should have been front and centre in any discussion of the issue, and we should have at least some evidence of how Goldsmith compares to other MPs being investigated.

However, even if it’s their belief that Goldsmith spent more than anyone else, does this justify the exclusive focus on him?  No.  They should have conducted and published an investigation into election expenses among all MPs.  There could have been a reasonable basis for choosing to focus on a subset of MPs, such as those who spent just under the limit, or those in close marginal seats.  Having done this, they could present Goldsmith as an example – perhaps a particularly bad one – of possible rule-breaking among a number of MPs.  It would have left Goldsmith in just as much trouble with the Electoral Commission, and would have denied him the chance to spin this as him being picked on by Jon Snow et al.  Instead, Channel 4 News has left itself looking opportunistic and sloppy.

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