National treasure Stephen Fry has waded into the debate about MPs’ expenses, claiming that MPs are not really doing anything much wrong, and stating very bluntly that journalists are far worse when it comes to fiddling expenses.
I have news for Stephen. The expenses culture for journalists ended a long time ago – at least 10 years ago – when the accountants moved in and put an end to it. The scandal at the Houses of Parliament, however, has been going on a long time – only MPs can vote on their expense allowances and they just keep voting to continue. The broadsheets, especially the Telegraph – have done a fantastic job of uncovering just how much MPs are ripping off the tax-payers – to the average tune of £200,000 a year.
Compare that to journalists. Freelances cannot claim any expenses from a publication at all, unless approved in advance by the commissioning editor. If I go to a meeting with an editor in a café, I can’t claim even the cost of two cups of coffee – under Inland Revenue rules, that counts as “entertainment” and I’m not permitted to put it through my books as a tax-deductible expense. I can’t even claim for a solo sandwich unless I’m away overnight, and only then is it permissible as “subsistence”.
Staff journalists find it incredibly difficult to claim anything these days. Buy a beer for a contact who’s giving you a possible story? Probably – if you get a receipt from the pub. Anything beyond such petty claims is vetoed by a paper’s management now. So for Stephen Fry to call us “venal and disgusting” is a bit much.
Stephen Fry served a prison sentence for credit card fraud as a teenager. I’m not judging him for that – I did things as a teenager that broke the law (although not quite as badly as that). He’s done his time and moved on, as is right.
But he of all people should understand that taking other people’s money is wrong. And taking the piss in these straitened times – when we’ve just saddled ourselves with trillions of debt that will take until our grandchildren are adults before it’s paid off – is even worse.
Remember that most journalists are on low salaries that haven’t really changed much in 20 years or longer (average salary for a mid-level reporter on a regional paper is £18k). It’s almost understandable that, until the mid-90s, hacks would fiddle their claims to stretch their wages. MPs, on the other hand, earn a basic salary of £64,766. Plus allowances. A canny politician can easily rake in £250,000 a year or more simply by using the system “in good faith”.
Fry has got it badly wrong this time.