Press standards shake-up needs to crack down on journalistic looters

Reading about the thousands of pounds worth of free stuff accepted by an un-named magazine fashion editor in The Times this week put me in mind of a particularly successful looter.

Swag trousered by the magazine stylist included: a Blackberry in its case, a pair of diamond earrings and an Apple laptop. Rioters who made off with far less earlier this month are now serving a lengthy prison sentence.

In some ways the admitted crimes of this unnamed journalist are worse, because they are corrupt and involve the abuse of a position of trust. And because a well educated £34,000-a–year professional, who has probably had every opportunity in life, should know better. According to The Times’s whistleblower (£)- the relationship between freebies and editorial is clear:

“fashion PR sends fashion editor a bag, fashion editor likes bag and puts said bag in the magazine, sales of bag soar, fashion editor keeps bag, fashion PR and bag company are delighted”

The Bribery Act came into force on 1 July and could well make such sweeteners illegal.

Justice secretary Kenneth Clarke said interpretation of the act would come down to “common sense”.

It seems to me common sense that a journalist who accepts a free holiday, or expensive gift, in exchange for an editorial mention which wouldn’t otherwise appear is accepting a bribe.

Lunch where a PR or contact picks up the bill would seem to me a reasonable part of the job. But an all-expenses-paid VIP weekend at their expense begins to look a little dodgy. And if it directly leads to positive editorial coverage then that’s corrupt isn’t it?

There will be exceptions. Travel journalists need to experience holidays to write about them, but few publications could afford to fund such travel themselves. So they have to accept hospitality from hotels, airlines and tour operators. But they should be up-front about telling readers when they have done so. Few publications currently are.

The same is probably true of journalists in a number of other areas who need to experience things in order to write about them: such as motoring writers, beauty journalists and drinks writers. Even war reporters are often flown out to conflict zones at the MoD’s expense.

But the diary writers who drop mentions of Champagne brands into copy and then gratefully accept a case of said brand and any journalist who lets an indirect financial sweetener influence what they write should be slapped down.

And don’t get me started on the many celebs who take free holidays organised by travel PR companies for stories which then appear in the national press. Said PRs then file the copy, purportedly written by the celeb, directly to the national newspaper travel desk (yes this really does happen).

The Leveson Inquiry into press standards and the general upcoming shake-up of press regulation will not stop at phone-hacking, but take a broader review of standards in the press.

The Press Complaints Commission Editors’ Code says little about financial corruption – and particularly the more pernicious practice whereby advertisers secure favourable editorial mentions in some more shady publications. But I’d argue that it should (if the PCC system survives).

And Bribery Act or no Bribery Act – the phone-hacking scandal should act as a wake-up call for all journalists to make sure they keep their noses squeaky clean.


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