Ann Widdecombe was spot-on when she said that having journalists passing judgement on anyone’s expenses is a bit like having Satan heading a commission on sin.
Newspaper expenses were, in their heyday, something of an art form. As a cub reporter on the Yorkshire Post, I was taken aside by one of the more senior chaps to be told: “You’re not claiming enough.” The old hands feared the management might reduce their own claims if greenhorns like me were doing the same job at half the cost.
On many papers then, there was a de facto tolerance that a reporter would claim a fixed amount every week; the most creative piece of writing for many each week involved getting their expenses up to the level permitted. The system was well calibrated — the amounts allowed rising commensurately with the status of the writer.
On Fleet Street, it was all quite open. I remember the deputy editor of The Times telling me, after I had been away for a fortnight on one story: “Take your wife out for a nice lunch to make up, and put it on your expenses.”
So institutionalised was this that reporters used to meet in El Vino on a Tuesday lunchtime to swap receipts from weekend meals with their spouse; they called the gathering the London Bill Exchange. Foreign correspondents claimed such good expenses that many were able to bank their salaries back home and live entirely off their expense account.
It could go wrong, of course — as with the chap from the Daily Mail covering one of Israel’s wars with her Arab neighbours, and doing it entirely from Goliath’s Bar, opposite the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. At the end of each week, he got a barman to scribble out some receipts in Hebrew to justify fictitious taxi journeys around the region. “Just write anything,” the hack said.
Unfortunately, someone in the accounts department back in London spoke Hebrew, and queried one. “This receipt which you claimed says ‘Taxi to Nablus’, doesn’t actually say that. What it says is ‘All Arabs are bastards.’”
Panache was admired in these fiddles. An old Cairo hand from the Express once claimed for the purchase of a camel. When accounts in London told him to sell it to defray the cost, he cabled back more expenses. They read: “To funeral expenses for camel.”
In recent years, most newspapers have clamped down on expenses to control costs. Most now place tight limits on what is considered legitimate spending. The age of extravagance is over. It is perhaps because journalists’ expenses have been so dramatically curtailed that they are waxing so indignant at the continuing indulgences of MPs.
This might explain why most of the coverage is about uncovering outrageous examples and excoriating the miscreants rather than suggesting solutions. So let me break ranks, and offer the Church of England as a useful exemplar. The Government should buy 646 apartments around Westminster, and make them available free of charge to MPs, so long as they are in the job. There could be Green Book specifications on furnishings and decor. Only travel expenses would be reimbursed to the MPs’ own homes in their constituencies.
They would find a way of bending the system to their own advantage, of course: people always do — like the photographer on a London paper who used to claim wherever possible for “Hire of boat to get pic from the river”. A managing editor once said to him: “See you needed the boat again, George, but what was that claim for ‘Second-hand material for mooring of boat’?”
“That was money for old rope,” George is alleged to have replied. The trouble with rope is that, if you give people enough of it, eventually they hang themselves.
Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.