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  1. The Staggers
30 January 2023

The Zahawi affair only proves the power of journalism – and the failure of government

If parliament is serious about standards, it should make the fourth estate stronger.

By James Ball

With the Nadhim Zahawi affair, Rishi Sunak has acted swiftly, decisively, but with fairness and decency over the last week – or so No 10 would have us believe.

The version of events it wants in the minds of the public is that Rishi Sunak only found out in the last few days that there were questions around Zahawi’s tax affairs, which he had failed to disclose in line with the ministerial code. When the Prime Minister learned of this, he immediately appointed an independent investigator – on an expedited timeline – and once that investigator reported, Sunak acted rapidly to sack Zahawi.

The reality is dramatically different: successive prime ministers could have quickly got to the truth about Zahawi six years ago had they just paid attention to reporting in the media. Instead, he was promoted time and again – eventually to chancellor – even as he used legal threats to try to keep his financial affairs under wraps.

As far back as 2017, the Guardian reported that Zahawi seemed to have an interest in Balshore Investments (the offshore body that held YouGov shares, over which Zahawi paid a settlement) and that it had paid off a loan on his behalf. What’s more, the article noted Zahawi had failed to declare any interest in Balshore on the register of MPs’ interests. Last summer, as Zahawi was appointed chancellor, the Independent and Observer reported various investigations into his tax affairs, which were ignored by the government. And the tax lawyer Dan Neidle faced months of legal threats for accurate, independent reporting on Zahawi’s tax affairs.

The fourth estate did its job in this instance – it held power to account, but none of the official mechanisms appeared to pay any attention. Instead of looking to answer the questions raised in the media, successive prime ministers and their officials took little interest.

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A blind eye was turned as Zahawi seemingly tried to use his lawyers to prevent even the asking of those questions, by trying to scare reporters off the story. UK libel law is especially well-suited to this kind of menacing, as even good journalism is hard to defend: being sued takes months, creates a huge amount of work and stress, and many journalists and outlets just don’t have the resources to fight.

The power to make it easier to fight off pernicious lawsuits – known as Slapps (strategic lawsuits against public participation) – lies, sadly, with the government and with parliament. There is draft legislation to reform it available, and cross-party support for it.

If the government really wants to promote integrity not just in parliament, but in business and wider society too, it should create the parliamentary time to make the fourth estate stronger. Surely that is what any prime minister serious about standards would want to do.

But given Rishi Sunak’s peevish responses when he was asked about his own US green card status as chancellor, his wife’s non-dom status, or even whether he was registered on the NHS as Prime Minister, campaigners have reason to doubt him.

The media is doing a better job than the official watchdogs at holding ministers to account. Whose side is the Prime Minister on?

[See also: Is Substack the future of media?]

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