REPAIRING JOURNALISM:  Lord Leveson only has to follow his nose to discover that some journalists are driven by personal greed. It’s time to restore our pride


Q: Hello, is that the Asda press office? I’m calling from Press Gazette. How many journalists attended your George press fair?

Asda:  Well over a hundred.

Q:  Did you give them all a £30 voucher?

Asda: (Pause) Do you attend press shows yourself, John? At press shows, you offer a bit of a gift bag. We give a voucher because we like journalists to go into a store and see what we offer.

Q:  Could I use the £30 voucher for my Asda groceries?

Asda: (longer pause) Yes.

Q:  So you might as well give the journalists £30 cash? 

Asda: (Even longer pause) Er, got to go. Put your questions down in an email please...

I’ve seen more outstretched hands than in an Oxfam poster. The sad thing is they come with painted fingernails rather than skeletal arms and are not attached to hungry children but to some of my professional colleagues. Gimme an ipad. Gimme a holiday. Lend me a flash motor. Buy me a Michelin meal. Pay for my groceries.

Gimme, gimme, gimme. For many, the not-so-secret Code of Practice.

As the journalists streamed into an Asda fashion preview recently, a light breeze blew outside, perhaps picking up the stench of perfumed putrefaction and wafting it from Covent Gardens to The Strand. There, at the High Court, it might have caught in the throat of Lord Leveson who was sitting down to inquire into press corruption. 

If he got a whiff, it should have reminded him to go back to basics, to the point it all begins. 

Sometimes sleaze wears lipstick, carries a £500 handbag, gets £100 haircuts, dines at Michelin restaurants and goes cruising in the West Indies. We, the press, love to act as moral arbiter, yet our practices are institutionally suspect.

Don’t particularly blame Asda. They’re innocent. They simply tune into the expectations of some journalists, that they should be rewarded merely for turning up and doing a nice, cushy number. Refreshments? A goody bag? Oh, and here’s your giftcard. Enjoy, darling!

Would anyone give £30 vouchers to police officers? Or MPs? And if they did, guess who’d lead the lynch mobs. Yes, journalists.

This kind of corruption is so embedded that we cannot see it for what it is: behaviour widespread enough to shame a Pakistani cricketer moonlighting for FIFA.

Freebies and phone hacking. They are all on the same continuum of moral corrosion.

There are fine, brave journalists who do say no and they deserve medals as big as dustbin lids. To them, the job is not about filling their boots. It’s about integrity and they are the unrecognised heroes, hacks who dare to hold out - even at the cost of their careers. (SEE MY PAGE 'Heroes vs Hackers').

But for many, avarice trumps judgement. 

With a quick adjournment, Lord Leveson could have strolled down The Strand and witnessed the grasping and the greed, this lack of journalistic self-respect.

‘To be honest,’ one writer murmured to me afterwards, ‘a thirty quid voucher - it was less than I expected. Ah well, mustn’t complain. Do for the weekend groceries.’

Ask around about freebies and some people sound like finalists reeling off prizes at the end of The Generation Game.

Diamond rings. Diamond pendants. Dream holidays. Cruises. Laptops. I-pads. I-pods. E-readers. Michelin dining. Bespoke suits. Designer clothes. Handbags. Shoes. Furniture. Home decorating. Car loans. Mayfair haircuts. Spa weekends. Concerts. Movies. Theatre. Football at Wembley. Rugby at Twickenham. Tennis at Wimbledon. Cricket at the Oval. Racing at Ascot. All with enough food, wine and flattery to remind you you’re absolutely fab.

‘I was at a lunch recently,’ said one writer, ‘and had the misfortune to sit on a table of 20-somethings from the glossies, probably all on very low salaries, and every girl spent the dinner name-dropping - which spa was best, New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco? When I’d lifted my head out of my plate where it had sunk through sheer boredom, I realised the girls were just totally spoilt because they get SO much. I’ve heard lots of ‘don’t you know who I am?’ stories from these posh trips when someone doesn’t get as good a room as someone else - and it amuses me that they probably fly easyJet when they go on holiday themselves.’

Some journalists’ greed is as legendary as their paid-for lunches. 

One editor used her own house for her home features, inviting retailers to show how they could refurbish it. They duly complied. Room by room, it was done up for free or with major discounts. She was not the first. 

Another merely hinted at a need for a new wardrobe and was whisked to an Oxford Street store. There were so many bags, they need another cab for the return journey. 

How do I know?  First-hand, I’m afraid. As an editor for 20 years. I  was an occasional beneficiary. I took a cruise and I visited Florida - but at least I wrote lengthy reviews. That was in the 90s. Everything else I raffled to my staff. Not an excuse, but, with therapy, I have climbed back on the straight and narrow.

You name it, we can get it. We’re not called the consumer press for nothing. Another editor ordered masses of furniture from a high-end shop using a personal 30 per cent discount and then didn’t pay for it anyway. 

One writer told me: ‘I’ve had endless dinners at top restaurants, a diamond ring, a loose diamond solitaire, concerts at the 02, Ladies Day at Ascot, a trip to Paris with spending money, hair cuts and beauty treatments at pretty much any salon I want, a £100 washbag, top of the range juicer, lots of trips to spas and hotels. Don’t name me. I’d hate to lose out!’

Another explained: ‘We’ve been flown to New York and to Egypt, with PRs saying they want to ‘showcase’ a new product. Any excuse for wining and dining poolside in five-star hotels.’ 

There are motoring journalists who get a £500 hi-fi system fitted. And don’t even mention the loan of cars. And only recently beauty journalists were delighted to attend a product launch which had been thoughtfully located amidst the restaurants of Portofino on the Italian Riviera. 

One trade magazine writer told me: ‘I had a news editor who used to get a free holiday and free car every summer in the south of France!’

Others might drop into a Formula 1 race by helicopter. No traffic jams for them!

Don’t let’s kid ourselves. What do we think PRs are there for? Why do they vastly outnumber journalists?

I think we know. 

In order to hold others to account, journalists must first hold themselves to account (copyright R Murdoch, R Brooks, C Myler).  

Journalism should be bursting, not with villains and villainy, but with heroes and heroism.

*  Article published in Press Gazette, October 2011, at the start of the Leveson Inquiry into Media Ethics.

Hilaire Belloc wrote...

You cannot hope to bribe or twist
Thank God! the British journalist.
But seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there's no occasion to.