Making you pay for their porn won't stimulate the economy
In one sense, it is rank hypocrisy that any journalist should bash poor Jacqui Smith for inadvertently claiming her husband's porn films on expenses. As anyone with any experience of Her Majesty's Press can testify, the expenses claim is the genre where the reporter is expected to exercise whatever creative gifts he or she may possess. It seems to be a kind of sacred tradition of Fleet Street.
Shortly after arriving in the newsroom of the Times, more than two decades ago, an old and wily reporter invited me and another trainee out to lunch in order, as he put it, to "show us the ropes". We had a doleful Japanese meal, in almost total silence, and all paid our way. I was wondering what kind of tutorial this was, when the reporter picked up the bill with a flourish. "See this?" he said. "This is a good bill," he said, and trousered it.
"But who are these people?" I used to ask one distinguished leader-writer, when I read his restaurant claims, consisting of a series of chunky bills for "lunch with contact" or "dinner with contact". Was there any way they could perhaps be identified, for the sake of verisimilitude? "I am afraid not," he would sigh. "Security reasons." Or there was the TV reporter I used to know in Brussels, who contrived to claim for a lawnmower in spite of living in a fourth-floor flat with no garden.
It is a fact of British journalism – the Telegraph excluded – that when you read an account of something of which you happen to have independent knowledge, you will often see how the facts have been slightly sandpapered to improve the story, or how the quotes have been artistically pruned of their vital saving clauses, and it is no surprise that this poetic licence finds its way into the composition of expenses. How many hacks have sat up late at night watching the porn film in the hotel bedroom? How many have then allowed it to appear as "media" or "extras" on their bill, and claimed back the cost? Hmm?
So is it not the height of absurdity and humbug that the media should now be beating up the Home Secretary, and heaping fresh humiliation on her husband, just because he happened to spend a few restful hours watching Green Emmanuelle and Wife Swappers? Show me Fleet Street in high rage against political sleaze, and I will show you an industry with a historic and collective addiction to the mild embellishment of expenses. So why do we hear this pant-hooting anger about Richard Timney and a stray tenner? Is it not the height of double standards?
Well, no, it isn't. In the first place, journalists are regularly fired for fiddling their expenses, and fired on the spot, with none of your gentlemanly parliamentary inquiries. But the biggest and most fundamental difference is that in every case (except for the chap with the non-existent lawnmower, who was employed by the BBC), the victims of the fraud are the proprietors or shareholders of private media organisations.
When Jacqui Smith's husband sent in the bill for his night of rapture with Raw Meat Three and Onan the Barbarian, he sent it to the taxpayer. He was seriously proposing that you and I should pay, and had it not been for a separate inquiry now going on into some other aspect of the Home Secretary's allowances, we would indeed have paid. That is the real shocker.
It is only by the purest fluke that this dodge has been uncovered, and as the G20 leaders prepare to arrive in London to consider the merits of yet more state spending and borrowing, the news could not have come at a more embarrassing time for Gordon Brown. When Barack Obama checks the New York Times website this morning, he will see that the Home Secretary has ingeniously managed to break the rules of politics, by getting embroiled in a scandal that is both sexual and financial at the same time. "British Minister Promises to Pay for Porn" is the headline, which surely deserves a prize as the most ludicrous news story ever generated by a Home Secretary and holder of one of the great offices of state.
In Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel is already having doubts about the wisdom of trying to boost the global economy with more borrowing and more spending, the news has broken like a thunderclap. The German press rejoices in the hilarious "Porno-Affäre" of "die britische Innenministerin", and Chancellor Merkel will arrive in London with a powerful argument in her quiver.
Yes, we all want to stimulate the global economy – that is why world leaders should cut the cackle and do a deal on the Doha Round. Yes, there is a great deal of sense in continuing or even stepping up the investment in shovel-ready infrastructure projects that will deliver jobs and growth now, and long-term economic benefits. But Mr Timney's porn bill has brilliantly illuminated the problem of excessive and untargeted public spending.
With a budget deficit of £157 billion, and with a national debt heading for two trillion pounds, the British public has suddenly woken up to the sheer scale of Labour waste in the past 10 years. That is why two thirds of people now want to see cuts in spending, and why nine people in 10 now think that Whitehall could be run more efficiently.
There are absolutely no economic benefits in subsidising Mr Timney to watch TV (and I don't care what he watches), except possibly a tiny performance fee to Green Emmanuelle, wherever she is, and some dosh for Virgin Media – and it is outrageous that these causes should be considered worthy of taxpayer support. There is no case for a fiscal stimulus if we continue to allow waste on this scale, and if Mr Timney wants any further physical stimulus he should blooming well pay for it himself.