Writing in Business Day, Anton Harber traces the way the British MPs' expenses scandal emerged, with enormous ramifications for that country's politics. The case has also thrown up an interesting light on the old principle that journalists should not pay for stories.

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

WHEN Heather Brooke was a journalism student in the US, she applied to see her congressman’s expenses. She received all the receipts within three days.

Back in England, shortly after that country’s Freedom of Information Act came into force, she became something of a freelance campaigner, sending off information requests to dozens of state institutions (see her Your Right To Know website at www.yrtk.org). The one most obstructive was parliament itself. She was persistent and was blocked by MPs at every turn. When she was close to getting the information, the speaker of parliament went to court to stop her. He lost and some information was forced out.

She used the precedent to push for more, and parliament announced it would publish all the details in October last year. It missed that deadline and set another for December. When that passed, it promised to do it in July this year. The excuse was they wanted to remove information such as MPs’ private addresses.

By now five years had passed, and someone inside became impatient.

They stole or copied the two CD disks of information and it landed in the hands of a corporate intelligence agency.

This agency set out to hawk the information, initially asking £300000. They were turned down by the Times and the Sun. Telegraph journalists saw the value immediately, but it is not known how much they paid for it.

Brooke was now out of the picture, and a team of Telegraph journos began to dissect the information and make sense of it. They have drip-fed the story now for 27 days, perhaps the longest-running scoop yet. The paper, which had been flagging badly, had a massive circulation boost.

British media commentator Roy Greenslade wrote that he couldn’t avoid hyperbole in describing the story and its impact. It is “truly unprecedented, exceptional and incomparable”, he says.

“Its political effects have been devastating, wrecking the electoral chances of the government and forcing the resignation of the House of Commons speaker, several ministers and more MPs. It has also brought parliament itself into disrepute.”

There are a few things to note about the story. The first is that there has been little outcry at the Telegraph’s chequebook journalism. It is common for the British tabloids to buy stories, and Rupert Murdoch’s papers usually lead the way. This time his two leading papers, the Times and the Sun, both turned it down and left it to a serious broadsheet that would not normally do it. Bought evidence is usually considered unreliable, encouraging sources to exaggerate to earn their keep.

In this case, the public interest has been so overwhelming, and the outrage at the MPs’ attempts to hide the information so great, that there has been little concern about what had to be done to get it out. Greenslade, like many commentators, defended the Telegraph: “It was not paying for an interview or an individual’s story, which might well be coloured by payment, but to obtain documents. They could not be tainted by money.”

The story sees the emergence in Britain of a kind of journalism that has become common in the US: the mining of official databases to produce this kind of exposé. Such reporting is driven by access to information and computer analysis and is very powerful when done well. At the root of the story, though, was a disgruntled insider — the infamous anonymous source.

Also, it is clear that amid the more outrageous and dishonest expense claims, there are a few petty ones which received unfair attention. An MP may have put in a legitimate claim for a working lunch, and the bill contained a few pence for cigarettes. The tabloid headlines only told of the cigarettes .

I suspect in our own country, the media would have been lambasted for using stolen material, paying for it, and not being entirely fair in their treatment of every detail. No doubt the British politicians would also have tried that escape route, but the combination of a good source, a persistent journalist and massive public response made it impossible. Politicians were called to account.

Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. This column first appeared in Business Day on 10 June.