Richard North, 03/08/2021  

The "access capitalism" saga seems to be in danger of losing its way, as the Mail takes it up, turning into a tawdry tale headed: "Revenge of Mr Moneybags".

Rather than a tale of "Tory sleaze", which is the main reason why this issue is important, the paper has cast it as a "feud over rival Tory factions" driven by Mohamed Amersi, cast either as "the tycoon who gives to good causes and bankrolls ministers", or the "shadowy figure with alleged Russian links".

Thus, in a long report which focuses on "human interest" and personal details, the paper manages to avoid any mention of the secretive "Advisory Board" profiled by the Financial Time, thereby stripping the tale of any political bite.

And it gets worse. A supplementary report in the same paper is headed: "Tories would not treat me like this if I was white", with Amersi also cited as claiming that the Conservatives "would have treated him better if he had a traditional English name and had been to Eton and Oxford".

Then there is another element thrown in. We learn via Amersi's e-mails that Ben Elliot's Quintessentially company was in April last year offering Covid PCR tests from private healthcare company, Qured, for £295 – at a time when the testing system was under pressure and it was hard even for essential workers to get tested.

This, I'm afraid, is typical of the legacy media, which manages variously to trivialise even the most serious of issues, or distract readers from them, in this case steering clear of the significant political implications of Amersi's revelations in favour of the low-grade soap opera, with overtone of Tory racism and "rich privilege".

Going for the cheap, dog-whistle treatment does of course let Johnson and his cronies off the hook, representing a missed opportunity which, if it is to be recovered, means that others will have to do the heavy lifting.

Had the Mail chosen to stay with the politics and develop the "sleaze" dimension, using "access capitalism" as a foundation, there were two further developments yesterday which could have served as building blocks to make the case for a system off the rails.

The first of these building blocks is the appointment on 1 August of a lawyer specialising in banking and acquisitions as an independent member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the body which "advises the Prime Minister on arrangements for upholding ethical standards of conduct across public life in England", going under the popular title of "sleaze watchdog".

Selected from 173 candidates offering themselves for two vacancies on the committee, the appointee in question is Ewen Fergusson. And what gives this the political edge, picked up by the Mirror and others, is the singular fact that he was a university contemporary of the prime minister and a fellow member of the notorious Bullingdon Club.

Given that Fergusson has no obvious experience, qualifying him for a high-level position assessing standards in public life, Labour's Angela Rayner has remarked that, "Being Boris Johnson’s chum from the Bullingdon Club does not qualify you to sit on the watchdog that is supposed to crack down on sleaze and cronyism in our politics. In fact, it should disqualify you".

Labour's alternative is a "fully independent integrity and ethics commission" which has regulatory and monitoring functions which the Standards Committee lacks. Rayner argues that such a body is necessary to "oversee and stamp out the rampant sleaze and cronyism coming from Downing Street that has polluted our democracy". She may have a point.

This could be especially relevant in relation to the second of yesterday's building blocks, one picked up by the Guardian concerning the parliamentary Committee on Standards.

Belatedly, this body has decided to launch an inquiry, looking into MPs who sit on All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) who lobby for certain industries while being paid by organisations in those same industries, thereby exploiting what is believed to be a lobbying loophole.

One example given, of several, is the former Welsh minister Alun Cairns is vice-chair of the APPG on taxis, which has agreed to "continue pressuring the government to provide urgent financial support for taxi drivers". At the same time, the MP for the Vale of Glamorgan is also paid as a senior adviser to Veezu, the private hire and taxi firm based in Newport.

Another example is Mark Pawsey, the MP for Rugby. He is the chair of the Packaging Manufacturing Industry APPG, the aim of which is "‘to address issues facing the industry from regulation". But Pawsey is also paid £2,500 a month as chair of the Foodservice Packaging Association.

This sort of practice is what many might consider to be the low-grade corruption which dominates the British political establishment, differing only in scale from the "Advisory Board" scenario at the top of the Conservative Party.

It is a classic example of what Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff discusses in her column yesterday. "Money talks", she writes, adding: "Or perhaps more to the point, money gets heard".

However, she then continues: "We know this to be the case in British politics by now, which is why stories that arguably should shock – like the weekend's allegations that Conservative party chair Ben Elliot runs a secretive club of big Tory donors who are given direct access to the prime minister and chancellor – increasingly elicit little more than shrugs".

Sadly, Hinsliff's commentary on this is all too accurate. Drowned out by news of the Olympics and the media obsession with travelling abroad for "holidays in the sun", the impact of these political stories is minimal.

But it would not be untoward to suggest that the public response (or lack of it) is, at the very least, influenced by the way such stories are reported. Taking the "access capitalism" story, for instance, the media has been all over the place, unable to decide as a collective whether this is a political story of part of the royal soap opera.

More generally, each political scandal that emerges tends to be treated as an isolated occurrence, with little sustained attempt to join the dots. Thus, the media effectively invites us to see events as sporadic occurrences and rarely troubles to pick out common themes or evidence of systemic failures.

Perhaps we expect too much if we expect the media to perform this service for us – except, by its own inflated estimation of its worth, the legacy media are forever telling us that they are vital to the functioning of a healthy democracy – which may explain why we have a democracy in name only, while our politicians routinely trash any semblance of accountability or responsibility.

Perversely, Hinsliff herself is sets the standard in her piece for the media's failure. While she opens on the "secretive club of big Tory donors who are given direct access to the prime minister and chancellor", the bulk of her column is about the "veil of secrecy around Prince Charles" which, she argues, "must be lifted". That she seems less concerned about the access afforded by senior members of the government to a group of rich donors tells its own story.

This then brings us to The Times which has the paper's chief reporter, Sean O'Neil, writing about "access capitalism" under the title: "In Britain we keep trying to ignore the whiff of corruption". To this, we might respond, in the manner of Lone Ranger and his sidekick Tonto, "Who's this 'we' kemosabe?"

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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