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Britain's double standards in dealing with political corruption allegations

Allegations of political corruption are more interesting to the British media when they concern Muslims than when they deal with the Tories

Lutfur Rahman, former mayor of Tower Hamlets, is today bankrupt, disgraced, almost universally despised and widely regarded as a crook having been condemned by an electoral court for corrupt and illegal practices.  

In this article I will certainly not argue that he is innocent, even though none of the charges levelled against him have even been tested in a criminal court. 

However I will prove that he has been targeted in a deeply unfair and disproportionate way. Let’s compare and contrast the media treatment dealt out to Rahman with the treatment of alleged Conservative Party election fraud.

Over the last four months Channel Four News (supported by the Daily Mail, where I write a column) has provided a mountain of evidence that the Conservative Party broke electoral law by overspending recklessly on a series of crucial by-elections in the run up to the 2015 general election.

More serious still, Channel 4 has provided what looks like strong evidence that Conservative MPs and officials compounded the offence by submitting at the very least misleading election returns to returning officers - a criminal offence punishable by jail.

In addition the broadcaster has shown that the Tory Party may have overspent in more than 20 crucial marginal seats at the 2015 general election itself.

Yet more damningly, it appears that the Conservatives may have made misleading returns to the authorities, presumably in order to escape detection.

This is a criminal matter, and at least 10 police forces are investigating the Tory expenses allegations. Last weekend we learnt that the Electoral Commission has taken the unprecedented step of applying to the High Court for a disclosure order. This move follows the failure of Tory officials to hand over key documents.

By any standards this is a momentous political story. It involves the governing Conservative Party, and very senior figures indeed, including Tory chairman Andrew Feldman, have been dragged into the row.

The underlying charge is that the Tories used financial muscle to buy victory in the key marginal seats that determined the result of the last general election.

And yet far more media coverage has been devoted to the scandal surrounding electoral corruption in the London borough of Tower Hamlets.  Indeed the coverage of Tory election expenses has been so minimal that many political insiders are not even aware of the police investigation - as a telling incident on Andrew Neil’s programme last Thursday night proves.

Andrew Neil raised the investigation in front of two informed and expert guests, the former Conservative defence secretary Michael Portillo and Labour’s Alan Johnson.

The ensuing discussion took barely one minute because both former Cabinet ministers said that they were unaware that a fraud investigation was going on.

Their ignorance is not surprising. Over the weekend I used the Factiva database to examine coverage of the Tory fraud story since revelations of alleged wrongdoing started to emerge in January.

I could find only two short pieces in the Daily Telegraph. Similarly, before the momentous decision by the Electoral Commission to take the Tories to the High Court, there had been there had been little more than a handful of tiny stories in the Times. I could find nothing in weekly news magazines such as the Economist, New Statesman and the Spectator. 

The story had largely been ignored by the BBC, though the High Court move has at last begun to generate more substantial coverage.

By contrast the coverage of Lutfur Rahman’s trials and tribulations was obsessive. I counted just under 80 articles in the Daily Telegraph on Rahman’s alleged corruption and electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets, nearly 50 in the Times, and 70 in the Evening Standard (which has only devoted one piece of less than 140 words to Tory expenses). There were more than 50 mentions in the Guardian and 14 in the Daily Express. 

There was even a long, highly critical article in the Economist (which like the Daily Telegraph has so far ignored the Tory expenses scandal) on what it claimed was Rahman’s "effort to import South Asian political ways" to Britain.

Admittedly the Tory expenses scandal has only been running for four months, while the Tower Hamlets saga stretched over several years. Yet one was a national story of first class importance whereas the other was a local affair.

The disproportion in coverage became even more baffling when I searched for reports of the Metropolitan Police’s announcement in March that it would not be pursuing its criminal investigation of Rahman.

I found only the briefest of mentions on the BBC website and the online versions of the Evening Standard and Daily Telegraph. The national press, having pursued the Tower Hamlets story over the last few years, remained otherwise mute.

This chronic disproportion in coverage raises very troubling questions. Could it be that allegations of political corruption are a great deal more interesting to the British media when they concern Muslims than when they involve mainstream secular Tory politicians?

- Peter Oborne was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He recently resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class; The Rise of Political Lying;and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Lutfur Rahman, who was re-elected as an independent mayor of Tower Hamlets, addresses an anti-austerity rally in Parliament Square in London on 21 June 21, 2014 (AFP).

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