Where Power Lies

On the back of this book is a testimonial from Matthew Parris, now the nation's best-loved journalist (replacing Bill Deedes), which reads: "Entertaining, convincing and thorough, Price takes us on an insider's tour of the badlands between two domains: the media and politics. Fact-packed, quote-stocked and masterly, a book to be read for reference, for scholarship or for fun." Amen to that, I say. Every word is true.

However, on the "infamous expenses scandal", Price leaves a lot still to say. For although it is true that this scandal was exposed by the media, it is true, too - and this is seldom pointed out - that it was also caused by the media: by the Thatcher government's fear of media outrage if, as recommended at the time by an independent inquiry, it put up MPs' salaries. Rather than run the risk of the inevitable fury, the government thought up the expenses system, which has been the cause of all the trouble.

This was never secret. It was simply assumed - as much by political correspondents as by politicians - that, given the prevailing state of public opinion, led by the media, the only way for MPs to get rewarded properly was to tolerate a bit of expenses-finessing on the side. And apart from the handful of MPs who broke the law (or in other ways grossly abused the system), none of this, by any international comparison, can realistically be called corruption - certainly not on a scale that might justify a respectable, non-muck-raking newspaper of quality executing a drawn-out campaign to expose it, deliberately extended over many weeks for maximum effect. The furore has ended up doing more damage to parliament, Britain's most invaluable institution, than Guy Fawkes succeeded in doing; and has stirred up an intensity of hatred for MPs - judging by the enraged faces displayed on the BBC's Question Time - usually reserved for paedophiles.

How has it come to pass, I ask myself, that it should be the Daily Telegraph, of all papers, that has done this dreadful deed? Something that the Berrys - the family which owned the Telegraph Group for the half-century I worked there - would never have authorised, and from which they, like the editors and leader writers, would have shrunk. If reform were needed, and I am not questioning that it was, then some less rabble-rousing method should have been adopted: possibly privately threatening to expose? Again, in the old days, if any paper had done what the Daily Telegraph did, its rivals would have been quick to deplore its irresponsibility. Today, however, instead of trying to douse the flames of public hatred, the other papers have not hesitated to add fuel to the flames. So the real scandal, in my view, is not so much one of MPs fiddling their expenses, as of the Daily Telegraph seizing on this excuse to launch a circulation stunt.

Clearly, my reaction, which would have been common a couple of generations ago, is wholly out of date today. Because of the enormous increase in the power of the media, Britain is now a society where, for the first time in its history, exposure, rather than secrecy, is the order of the day. Just as the dominant institutions of old (the armed forces, the churches, the police, the City, the universities and even the trade unions) all had vested interests in secrecy, the new dominant institutions (newspapers, television) have a vested interest in exposure: they prefer to rock the boat rather than act as ballast. And because the power and glamour of the media now attract an ever-increasing proportion of the best-educated, the new intelligentsia speak with one voice in favour of exposure.

Further strengthening this trend is the decline in the reluctance that citizens used to feel about fouling their nation's nest. The new historians, too, are part of the story. Debunking the national mythology used to be a dangerous game, but today it tends to guarantee huge sales, critical acclaim and popularity. So, transparency rules. But just as individuals cannot long survive total transparency, neither can institutions. Without institutional cover-ups, a nation perishes. There may have been too many in the past - but at least the institutions used to work, and work far better than they do now with the media breathing down their necks. This, sadly, is one truth that Mr Price's book does not expose.

Peregrine Worsthorne was editor of the Sunday Telegraph between 1986 and 1989.

Where Power Lies
Lance Price
Simon & Schuster, 512pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN