Expenses – MPs vs journalists

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.

24 thoughts on “Expenses – MPs vs journalists”

  1. A friend of mine just emailed me one of your articles from a while back. I read that one a few more. Really enjoy your blog. Thanks

  2. Lara O'Reilly

    I must be pretty naive not to have known about Fry’s prison sentence! Thanks for the blog though, something that needed to be said.

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  4. I was a bit surprised by Stephen Fry’s comments as well. I remember the “good old days” of expense claiming, and “old” is the operative word – I’ve not seen it going on in the media world (well, not the one I inhabit!) for quite a while.

    What seems to get underplayed about this story is that MPs are elected by us to represent us; and it is the taxpaying electorate who are paying for their extravagant claims.

    Whether or not the journalists who are decrying MPs are also claiming a huge amount of expenses is, to an extent, irrelevant – their job is to tell readers what politicians are going so that they can form their own opinions about it.

  5. I haven’t been keeping up with Stephen Fry’s thoughts on this matter, and good job – or my blood would have been boiling! You’re absolutely right Louise, and you expressed your argument very well. x

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  7. 1. You’re assuming he means print journalists. I’m not so sure he does.

    2. The UK’s government debt isn’t “trillions” but c. £620bn. And debt to GDP ratios aren’t wildly out of line with most of the other advanced economies, nor with historical numbers.

    3. Fry is absolutely spot on when he says: “Let’s not confuse what politicians get really wrong. Things like wars, things where people die, with the rather tedious bourgeois obsession with whether or not they’ve charged for their wisteria.”

    But you’re largely right, IMO. The Telegraph has done a public service with this story. Whatever they paid for the raw data was money well spent.

    There’s no one quite so dishonest as a politician. They’re only sorry they got caught (the apologies are straight out of The Simpsons). Most journalists don’t even come close.

  8. Whatever and whenever there is abuse of expenses claims, the difference here is that I don’t pay journalists expenses. I DO however pay MPs expenses through taxes.

    No-one should be allowed to profit through their expenses. MPs especially. There is a complete lack of transparency, honesty and morality here from the people in whom we choose to represent us.

    Comparisons with others are irrelevant and distracting from the real issue.

    MPs should be above this whereas in fact some (if not many) appear to see it as a way of simply and covertly supplementing income.

    Disgraceful

    This comment was originally posted on Journalism.co.uk Editors’ Blog

  9. The point is surely that Fry not making a distinction between print and other journalists tars us all with the same brush, regardless of whether one is a freelance, a regional reporter on a feeble salary or an overpaid Natasha Kaplinsky.

    I’ve actually lost track of exactly how much debt we currently have following the last £50bn bank bailout, but the exact sum doesn’t really matter. The politicians decided to saddle us with it, while continuing to spend the rest of our tax pounds having their moats scrubbed or letting their spouses watch pay-TV porn.

    I do take Fry’s point about dragging us into wars we shouldn’t be involved in, but it’s a distraction. MPs milking the expense system is still wrong, whichever way you slice it. It’s like comparing apples and oranges, comparing war and expenses.

  10. “Stephen Fry served a prison sentence for credit card fraud as a teenager. I’m not judging him for that”

    So why mention it at all? It’s not as if he was being all holier than thou, having admitted to fiddling expenses himself.

    I took the point of his remarks to be that many people (be they MPs, journalists or whatever) will all take advantage (or tolerate others who take advantage) of expenses as long as the cost is borne by someone else.

  11. I don’t judge him because, as I admitted, I broke the law myself as an unruly teenager. But you missed my point. He was convicted of a financial crime, which is somewhat different to his admission that he “fiddled expenses” himself. And someone who has served a prison sentence for fraud has no business saying it’s fine for our elected representatives to rip off tax payers. If anyone’s a hypocrite here, it’s Fry. I’m saddened (as well as angered) by his remarks because he’s someone I’ve always admired, especially for rising above his own problems so very publicly.

  12. I’m not sure he was suggesting it was ‘fine’ more that people should get a sense of perspective on it.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m displeased as the next taxpayer about the waste of our pennies and shall be watching closely how they reform the system.

    I would suggest the provision of Halls style accommodation for MPs that would otherwise require a second home. If that’s not ghood enough for them they could, at their own expense, pay for an alternative….

  13. Hear, hear! Well said!Cups of coffee? Hah! I didn’t realise until I read it yesterday that MPs are entitled to £400-worth of food without having to produce any receipts. I don’t believe anyone begrudges people reclaiming genuine expenses, but why should ministers be subject to different rules from anyone else? Clearly, they can’t be trusted to police themselves, so they should fill in expenses forms and produce receipts. They might even realise what hell it is for the rest of us and pressure the IR to make it a great deal simpler.

  14. Good grief! I didn’t know that either about the food claims – £400 with no receipts? No wonder were all so angry. I totally agree that MPs should be subject to the same rules as everyone else – receipts for genuine expenses only and an end to claiming for chandeliers and manure.

    Matt – I think you make a good point about halls-style accommodation for those who need it. I can’t get a mortgage even for a 1st home, let alone getting a tax-payer funded 2nd one!

  15. Re Matt’s comment: possibly a bit much to expect MPs with families to have halls-style accomodation. However, companies often rent a block serviced apartments for their overseas employees, particularly if they’ve got families – can’t see any reason the House of Commons couldn’t do the same.

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  17. Tina, I suspect that’s what Matt meant. I don’t think any of us would expect MPs to share boarding-school style dormitories, after all. But I don’t understand your point about their families. Why should we pay for MPs to have their families with them? All MPs should have their family in their primary (constituency) home and have access to a serviced flat or something in London for parliamentary sessions, as Matt suggests.

  18. I assumed he meant single rooms, as in halls of residence.

    Good point, but it does mean that anyone in a constituency a long distance from London may only get to see their family at the weekends. It could be argued (rightly) that many working people are in that position and they don’t get special treatment, but OTOH, lmany arge companies do make sure they offer accommodation that at least allows for overnight stays by employees’ families if they require those employees to work away from their main home. That isn’t altruistic – it means they get to keep the best people, and I think the same approach needs to be taken to MPs. A balance needs to be struck about what is fair and reasonable for the MP and the country, otherwise you run the risk of making it even more of a rich boys’ club than it already is.

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  21. So it is not true then that until recently reporters used to meet in El Vino on a Tuesday lunchtime to swap receipts from weekend meals with their spouse?

  22. No one’s saying that. What has been said (6 months ago, you’re a bit late in all this) is that that kind of expense fiddling went on a lot because reporters are generally on poor salaries, although I wouldn’t care to comment on Fleet St hacks’ practices as I’ve never been a staffer there. Fry’s comments were, however, wholly inaccurate and he should have known better than to say them.

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