Notes on a scandal

Female MPs were subject to higher scandal-related coverage in the press
UK Parliament Wikimedia Commons

Female MPs were more likely than male MPs to resign after the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal and their transgressions also received comparatively more press coverage, according to new research from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The research also concludes that it was the amount of media coverage rather than the amount of money misappropriated that had the most impact on whether both male and female MPs left Parliament, although the two were closely linked. It argues that the findings demonstrate the importance of the media as watchdogs of power in a well-functioning democracy.

The scandal, involving the widespread misuse of allowances and expenses relating to second homes, became public after a Whitehall contractor leaked the information to The Daily Telegraph in exchange for a £110,000 fee. It resulted in an unprecedented number of resignations, sackings, de-selections and retirement announcements, together with public apologies and the repayment of expenses. Several members or former members of the House of Commons, and members of the House of Lords, were prosecuted and sentenced to terms of imprisonment.

Professor Valentino Larcinese and Dr Indraneel Sircar of LSE analysed data from the Legg report which was published following an investigation into the debacle. Their paper, Crime and Punishment the British Way: Accountability Channels Following the MPs’ Expenses Scandal is due to be published in the European Journal of Political Economy.

Data about media coverage of MPs was gathered using a series of searches on the Nexis database of UK newspapers. The research compiled data from seven UK newspapers (including the Sunday editions): the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, The Sun, Daily Mail, and the Scotsman. The sample of newspapers was selected to include widely read national broadsheets and widely read national tabloids, along with an important regional newspaper (the Scotsman), as well as in order to have sufficient ideological variety.

To gauge the media salience of each individual MP’s involvement in the expenses scandal researchers used the number of articles in which an MP’s name appears alongside the word “expenses” in the period from 8 May 2009 to 7 August 2009 (i.e. for three months after the Telegraph revelations). However, since some MPs naturally had a higher profile, and therefore attracted more coverage, whether related to scandal or not, they also counted the number of articles in which the MP’s name appears during the three months preceding the scandal.

Researchers identified 65 MPs who announced their decision not to seek re-election in 2010 before the publication of detailed expenses, whilst 87 retired or were deselected after 8 May 2009. Every 10 per cent increase in news coverage leads to a 0.30 per cent increase in the likelihood of not being in Parliament following the 2010 General Election. Most of this effect can be explained by pre-election politics, i.e. resignations and de-selections.

Regarding the effect on female MPs of media coverage, the paper says: “We provide robust evidence that female MPs were subject to higher scandal-related coverage in the press, had a higher probability to stand down as a reaction to press coverage, and suffered higher loss of votes in 2010 compared to 2005. At this stage we can only speculate on the underlying reasons for these findings…Core attitudes about gender and morality can in turn both influence and be influenced by the media. An extensive literature analyses the different public expectations on ruthless, ambitious males contrasted with stereotypical “ethical” or “nurturing” females.”

The paper says: “Our conclusion is that what drives the accountability process is media coverage of the scandal rather than the amounts actually misappropriated by individual MPs and that most of the impact happens at the candidacy stage: hence focussing on electoral returns without considering the selection of candidates would underestimate the capacity of democracy to “throw out the rascals”.

By using data from the British Election Study, the authors also show that the perception of the involvement in the scandal displays a substantial partisan bias. Conservative supporters would usually perceive Labour MPs as more corrupt and Labour supporters would perceive Conservative MPs as more corrupt. Hence, partisan attitudes matters for corruption perception even when the press coverage is balanced.

The paper adds: “Our study of the scandal reaches two main conclusions: 1) the removal of corrupt politicians happens mostly at the pre-election stage; 2) information availability is a crucial ingredient in the accountability process. We also show that punishment was directed to individual MPs rather than their parties and that voters displayed a substantial partisan bias, not only at the voting stage but also by perceiving co-partisan MPs to be less involved in the scandal…Female MPs attracted more press coverage and, for the same amount of coverage, were more likely to stand down. Finally, we show that press coverage was ideologically balanced, i.e., newspapers with different ideological leaning devoted similar amount of news to each MP.

It also says: “Our findings point to the importance of mass media as watchdogs of power.”

Professor Larcinese commented: “Media bias is not always and necessarily a partisan bias, especially when the differences between parties are not clear (like in the case of the MPs' expenses scandal). In our case there is no detectable partisan bias in the coverage of the UK press, and this is good news. We uncover however a substantial gender bias and show that this bias mattered for the political careers of those involved. Partisanship, on the other side, remains a powerful determinant of voters’ perception of corruption and honesty.”