Last month, a Freedom Of Information request to the House of Commons authorities resulted – after a delay – in a list of MPs who had been slow to settle up their canteen and dining bills being released.
It showed MPs had upaid bills of around £138,000 – the largest of which belonging to Perry Barr (Birmingham) MP Khalid Mahmood. The FOI request was reported in numerous locations, including the Daily Telegraph among others.
A good story in its own right, of course, playing to the widely held belief among the public that MPs are dodgy. But of the dozens of outlets reporting the story and featuring in Google News as a result, only two appeared to actually speak to Mr Mahmood – the Birmingham Mail and the Daily Mail.
The quotes they got from Mr Mahmood are interesting:
Mr Mahmood was top of the list with a debt of £8,200.60. All the cash has since been repaid.
The MP said he was unable to keep on top of paperwork for two years while he was treated for kidney failure.
“I was being treated in hospital and I am still on dialysis,” he said.
“That was why it took me a while to settle the bill. This wasn’t my dinner bill. It was mostly for community groups in my constituency that held receptions in the Commons.”
Only MPs are allowed to book rooms in the Commons, so when an outside organisation uses a room the bill is sent to the MP.
“I would receive the bill and pass it on to the group concerned, but in the circumstances I didn’t get that done immediately,” he said.
I can’t but think this proves the point that in many cases, an FOI request is the beginning of the story, rather than the story in itself.