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British newspaper in spotlight over MP expense revelations

London — A good old-fashioned scoop or chequebook journalism? Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper has spent the last two weeks exposing MPs’ lavish expense claims but is facing ethical questions itself.

The paper says its investigation — which has revealed how individual lawmakers spent public money on everything from cleaning a moat to building a special island for ducks — has a strong moral purpose.

"This is the best sort of campaigning journalism Britain has seen in decades because it’s not just a question of being passed information," Andrew Pierce, the newspaper’s assistant editor, told AFP.

Most commentators have also praised the paper for exposing one of the biggest political scandals of recent times in Britain, while its rivals have been left picking up its revelations day after day on their front pages.

But amid unconfirmed reports that it paid nearly 100,000 pounds (115,000 euros, 150,000 dollars) for the details, some question whether the story will end up ranking alongside great scoops in the annals of journalistic history.

The Telegraph will not disclose whether it paid for the information. But Labour backbencher Stuart Bell summed up the anger felt by many lawmakers over the stories, thought to have leaked out of an office at the House of Commons.

"It is disgraceful that a national newspaper should stoop so low as to buy information which will be in the public domain in July," he said, referring to the fact that the expenses details were due in any case to be published.

"It undermines the very basis of our democracy and is against all the rules of fair play," added Bell, who has not been implicated in the scandal.

He would say that, critics might argue. But Aeron Davis, senior lecturer in political communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, said there were genuine concerns about how the story came out, not only among MPs.

"There’s something very unethical about how the story was obtained," he told AFP. "I think an awful lot of the stories are not real stories, there’s a lot of innuendos in between some very valid points about MPs."

But most media observers have praised its coverage — not least because, while being a traditionally right-wing newspaper, its stories have not spared Conservative lawmakers from embarrassing revelations.

Roy Greenslade, journalism professor at London’s City University, wrote in London’s Evening Standard last week that even if the Telegraph had paid for its information, it was "part of an historical tradition in the commercial press."

The revelations about MPs’ expenses have reportedly boosted the Telegraph‘s daily circulation — on day one of the revelations, it was up 87,000 copies, on an average of over 817,000 daily in April.

The paper has so far published details about more than 180 of the 646 members of the House of Commons.

Freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke noted that the Telegraph had succeeded where she has failed — having spent five years trying to obtain details of MPs’ expenses.

"There is another type of journalism more common in Britain and, it would seem, more effective… (the Telegraph) was offered the disc containing the raw data, some say for money," she wrote in the Guardian last week.

Pierce, the Telegraph‘s assistant editor, stressed the scale of the investigative challenge the newspaper faced.

"There’s thousands of pages to look through and we have then to establish from some of this information about whether MPs have paid off their mortgages," he said.

"That takes genuine investigative skills. It’s been a real lesson to the rest of Britain and Fleet Street that newspapers still have a very important role to play in keeping the executive to account, checking up on them."

Asked about sources and the question of payment, he said: "One of the great rules of journalism is that you don’t discuss your sources, so long as you establish the information is reliable and in the public interest."

Katherine Haddon/AFP/Expatica