Saturday, 16 May 2009

Would your expense claims stand up to scrutiny?

Maybe they would. Mine would - today.
But if I think back to my first week in journalism, one of the lessons I was given was in how to fill in an expenses form. I was told roughly how much I should claim each week, and it was explained to me that, to get to this total, I should say that I'd had a meeting involving drinks or lunch with a range of the people I'd actually only spoken to on the phone.
In later jobs I was always told what sort of expenses I should be claiming, and was given a bollocking on a couple of occasions for falling below the mark. That was letting the side down.
On other occasions, when a pay rise couldn't be given, I had my expenses bumped up instead.
At one national newspaper, a senior executive would call me or another underling in as he sat with his secretary and a pile of blank receipts, and ask us to falsify signatures on some of them.
At another paper, we were forbidden to say who we had entertained on our claims, on the grounds that a source had once been identified in this way. So we could bung down simply 'entertaining contact' repeatedly and no questions would be asked.
Once, someone unthinkingly slipped in a receipt for what was clearly a family meal at a Charlie Chalk pub. When challenged, he was in a panic, until a more seasoned colleague said: "Don't worry about it. Tell them you lunched [he named a woman MP] and she brought her kids along."
Of course, none of this would be aceptable today. But the rules that Fleet Street operated under only changed because the revenue took an interest in stamping out fraudulent claims.
And I'm not defending MPs, who have been merrily practising systemic fraud long after Fleet Street was forced to be more careful about it.
But I wonder if the expenses of senior journalists would stand up to such forensic scrutiny today.

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