Scrutinising government

Thousands of changes made to Wikipedia from within House of Commons

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House of Commons-Flickr/Visualist Image

The House of Commons – edited for a sleeker look. 

Ask any MP why they entered politics and they’re likely tell you they wanted to bring about change. And so they have. But not necessarily in the way the public might think.

An analysis by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism for The Independent has found that MPs and staff working at the House of Commons have been responsible for making nearly 10,000 changes to pages of the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia.

Nearly one in six MPs have had their online Wikipedia entries changed from Parliament and dozens of the alterations appear to be attempts to erase embarrassing or disputed allegations made during the 2009 expenses scandal.

But other edits are completely unrelated to Parliament. One includes an alteration about a plot to spy on the United Nations, another about the legal status of Pringles snacks and there’s even a reference to the countries in which incest is still legal.

‘Misleading and untruthful information’


Nearly 1 in 6 MPs have had their Wikipedia entries changed from Parliament –  many appear to be attempts to erase embarrassing or disputed allegations made during the 2009 expenses scandal.

All internet users inside the Houses of Parliament are routed through two previously identified IP addresses – unique numeric identifiers that act as a kind of digital fingerprint. The site keeps a comprehensive log of every alteration ever made, with a record of which user or IP address was responsible. And they paint a revealing picture.

One of the most persistent and successful attempts to edit information was made by Joan Ryan, who stepped down as a Labour MP in 2010.

At least 10 attempts have been made from computers in Parliament to remove information about Ryan’s expenses claims and a further 20 efforts to delete the information, some from her constituency of Enfield, have also been recorded in Wikipedia’s logs.

Former MP Joan Ryan

The sustained effort proved successful as there is now no mention of Ms Ryan’s Parliamentary expenses on her Wikipedia page.

When contacted by the Bureau, she admitted to having altered information, but said: ‘I’ve altered it whenever there’s misleading or untruthful information been placed on it’.

In 2009, the Daily Telegraph reported that Ryan had claimed more than £4,500 for work on her home in her Enfield constituency, before switching her designated second home to a flat in south London. Ryan insisted at the time that this did not constitute ‘flipping’ her second home since she had not made any claims for redecoration or refurbishment on her south London flat, which would have allowed her to claim the maximum to which she was entitled.

‘If anyone should f**k off it’s the Muslims who do this sort of thing’

Other Parliamentary edits to passages on MPs’ expenses appeared to be intended to massage information rather than remove it.

A statement that Clare Short had ‘admitted’ that she ‘overclaimed’ £8,000 worth of expenses on her home and like many other MPs claimed it was a ‘mistake’ and blamed it on Commons officials’ was rewritten to read that she had ‘confirmed that in 2006 the fees office had asked her to repay £8,000, because for three years they had erroneously paid her full mortgage, rather than just the interest’.

An article on the Labour MP Fabian Hamilton was edited to claim that he was subjected to ‘an unfair, personally targeted campaign from his political opponents who used exaggerated expenses claims and false information to attempt to discredit a powerful incumbent who has served Leeds North East for many years’, and that his claim had been a ‘a genuine, non-malicious, mistake’.

The Telegraph had previously reported that he had overclaimed for his mortgage while living with his mother. Mr Hamilton repaid the amount in full.


‘We would welcome any MPs who want to become editors’
Jon Davies, CEO, Wikimedia UK 

Contacted by The Independent Ms Short said her staff were ‘angry and protective’ about inaccurate and negative entries on her Wikipedia page and said it was quite possible that they have been responsible for the changes.

But, she siad, ‘It certainly wasn’t me. I never look at it. I find it too irritating.’ She added: ‘The only change I know was made to my page was my grandchildren adding their names in.’

Mr Hamilton said his entry had been changed by a young researcher to whom he pointed out inaccurate information on his page.

‘He helped me redraft it so it was accurate- but within 24 hours it had been changed back again. To my knowledge it hasn’t changed since. I’m afraid I don’t look at it anymore.’

In another case six attempts were made over 2006 and 2007 to redact a passage detailing a comment given by the MP Philip Davies to the Sun newspaper for a 2006 article claiming that Muslims had been responsible for an act of vandalism.

Mr Davies told the paper: ‘If there’s anyone who should f**k off it’s the Muslims who do this sort of thing’.

Other users of the site promptly reinserted the passage each time.

When approached by the Bureau, Mr Davies denied involvement. ‘No, it certainly was not me who either removed it or asked anyone to do so,’ he said. ‘Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I do not care what people say about me – let alone care about what it might say about me on Wikipedia.’

Other disappearances include a passage detailing how Chris Kelly had emailed his fellow MPs to ask them to give his sister a job. Mr Kelly was unavailable for comment.

‘The world’s first port of call for accurate, fact checked information’

But not all the changes were so serious.

The MP Michael Fabricant was included in a list of ‘notable DJs’ while someone altered, then altered back, the spelling on ‘Dalek’ to Darlek. There were also two edits to an article about the fictional character Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter series.

Jon Davies, the Chief Executive of Wikimedia UK, which has close ties to Wikipedia, stressed that the site was keen to see more users participating on the site. ‘We would welcome any MPs who want to become editors,’ he said.


Edits of note
Many parliamentarians’ contributions to the site have been unwelcome, and users have been admonished dozens of times for vandalising the website. In July 2009, one administrator posted: ‘This is the last warning you will receive for your disruptive edits. The next time you disrupt Wikipedia, as you did to Eric Clapton, you will be blocked from editing.’

Among the thousands of parliamentary edits, others found by the Bureau include:

• Clare Short’s article was altered to include a claim that she had backtracked on her allegation that British spies had plotted to surveil diplomats at the United Nations.

• In 2008, a user mentioned on the article of Andrew Marr that he had taken out a superinjunction. Discussing standing legal injunctions is a potential contempt of court.

• Altering, then altering back, the spelling of ‘Dalek’ (or is it Darlek?).

• Seven changes to the ‘Laws about Incest’ page, helpfully listing the jurisdictions where it’s legal.

• MP Michael Fabricant was included in a list of ‘Notable DJs’.

For some more of the quirkier Parliamentary edits, click here.