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Thursday, 25 June 2009

DEBATE: Should journalists accept travel expenses from organizations they are writing about?

FOR: Bill Goodwin, News Editor, Computer Weekly

Ideally, of course, journalists should not accept free flights, free lunches or free anything else from the organizations we are writing about. This is a sound principle, and one, at least in the USA, that is drummed into journalists from an early stage in their training.

In the UK its difficult to be quite so black and white, particularly on travel expenses. Many journalists, unless they have particularly enlightened employers, cannot afford to be quite so ethical. Travel and expenses budgets were never high. But over the past 12 months, the budgets for many publications have been cut back to the bone. Buying lunch or drinks for contacts is tricky, taxis are frowned upon, and when it comes to a flight or a hotel, well, you’ll be lucky.

But in the age of the internet its still true that journalists don’t get their best stories by sitting at their desks. Twitter, and RSS feeds are useful research tools but they can never take the place of meeting contacts in person.

We still need to attend conferences and events, and chat with people informally over drinks. And when overseas travel is involved, the choice is often between failing to cover the event and failing to secure an important interview or accepting a flight and a hotel from the organizers.

I have attended important conferences in the US that I could never have covered, if the organizers had not offered to pay my travelling expenses. By going along, however, I was able to hear, meet and interview, top business and academic experts I would have never encountered otherwise.

Does this mean I felt compromised ? No. I hope I would have interviewed the same people and written the same stories, if the costs had been met by my publication.

American journalists do place greater importance on never accepting travel expenses. And I agree with them in principle. Does it make them better journalists – not necessarily. When I have attended press conferences with US and English journalists, it’s often the English journalists that dare to ask the difficult, awkward questions – regardless of who covers their travel expenses.

But there is a line that should not be crossed. I was once given a bottle of good whisky as a Christmas present from a contact while working on a television documentary. The bottle went straight to a charity shop and I insisted on a receipt. I didn’t want to risk anyone using the gift as a reason to attack the program or undermine my integrity.

Where do you draw the line ? The Private Eye test is a useful guide. If Private Eye found out you had accepted travel expenses from an organization and printed that fact, would you mind. If the answer is yes, its better to stay in the office.

AGAINST: Dan Clery, Deputy News Editor, Science

MPs have, I imagine, been spending a lot of time recently thinking about how the injudicious use of expenses can damage your public profile. It is perhaps time for us journalists to do the same.

Over the past two decades I’ve worked for a couple of magazines that took positions on expenses that could not have been more different. I don’t know what its policy is now, but working for a British magazine in the 1990s there was no restriction on accepting travel and expenses paid for by organisations you were reporting on. I remember on one occasion spending a whole week touring Italy, visiting labs to see technology projects funded by the Eureka program. At the end of the week, Eureka allowed me to delay my return home so I could visit some friends in Naples, and arranged a business class seat home from there.

Very pleasant it was and, although I can’t remember exactly what I wrote at the end of it, I don’t think it was overly gushing or overly critical about Eureka. Like many a journalist, I told myself that my news instinct was immune to the influence of their generosity.

US-based magazines, such as the other one I’ve worked for, often have a strict policy on expenses: accept nothing. You always make your own way there, choose your own hotel, and buy your own lunch, even if it’s just a conference organiser who wants to pay for you to cover their event. Gifts are obviously another big no-no. It’s not only expenses that are out of bounds, other conflicts of interest are also carefully avoided. If I had a friend or relative who worked at the European Space Agency, I would be expected to step aside and let a colleague do European space stories.

Now I realise that the latter policy is the privilege of a successful magazine that has the money to send reporters wherever it wants them to go. Not every publication, especially among the trade mags, has a luxury: especially in the current climate when sales, subscriptions and ad revenues are down. For some journalists it’s a matter of accepting the paid-for trip and getting the story, or being high-minded and left with empty pages.

I’m not taking an absolute moral position on this, but I think junkets should not be the norm and we should aspire to be as independent as we possibly can. Can any of us really say that being wined and dined by a wealthy organisation is not going to make us more well disposed towards them? On the other hand, turning up somewhere under your own steam, asking the questions you need to ask, and walking away leaving your hosts without a clue whether you are going to write a puff piece or a demolition job does give a certain satisfaction. Our first loyalty should be to our readers and we owe it to them to ask the difficult questions. If we accept, or are perceived to be accepting, the generosity of the people we investigate, how can readers trust us?

There are reasons why journalists often sit alongside politicians at the very bottom of those public-figures-I-trust lists. It’s not all about doorstepping and cheque-book journalism, it’s about being seen to be on the gravy train. It’s time we got off that train and paid our own way.