Toby Young

Let him who casts the first stone...

Let him who casts the first stone...
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Few sights are more stomach-churning than the British press in one of its perennial fits of moral outrage. Judging by the leader columns of the past few days, the whole of Fleet Street is shocked -- shocked! -- to discover that MPs have been fiddling their expenses.

Could these be the same professionals I have worked alongside for the past 25 years? Apparently not, because the journalists I know are past masters when it comes to creative accounting.

I'll tell just one story, though I could bore you with at least a dozen. At the end of my first week as a News Trainee at the Times in 1986 I submitted my first ever expenses claim. I was worried it was a little extravagant -- I'd claimed for three lunches and two cab rides -- and my fears were confirmed when my then editor rejected it. "This won't do," he said, slamming the form down on my desk. "Get Nick to show you how it's done."

As he ran his eye over my claim, Nick shook his head with disbelief. "This is completely unacceptable," he said, barely able to conceal his outrage. "If you carry on submitting claims as modest as this, you'll end up making us all look bad."

He then whipped out his pencil and started marking it up, as if correcting a particularly poor piece of copy. Lunch bills were increased from £30 to £60; taxi fares had extravagant tips added to them; my evenings were now taken up with "drinks with contacts". By the end of the process, my claim had trippled in value. "Still pretty pathetic," he said, tossing it in my direction. "See if you can do better next week."

I'll spare Nick's blushes by not revealing his surname, but he was hardly exceptional. Everyone was on the fiddle -- and remember this was Fleet Street's most respectable newspaper. God knows what sort of claims they were submitting in other parts of Wapping.

If questioned about this behaviour, the defense offered up by Fleet Street's finest was exactly the same as that provided by MPs: everyone does it. It was considered one of the perks of the job, a way of compensating yourself for receiving such a low salary.

Until recently, journalists expressed no remorse about such behaviour, either. On the contrary, fiddling your expenses was a source of pride, the more imaginative, the better.

For instance, in Secrets of the Press, a collection of essays edited by Stephen Glover, there's a chapter entitled 'How to claim a camel on expenses'. The story is related of how an enterprising Express hack, who'd been keeping a camel for racing purposes while posted in some godforsaken African country, managed to claim the entire expense of stabling the beast under the heading of "local transport". Arf, arf, trebles all round.

Perhaps that explains why so many of my colleagues have suddenly got up on their high horses and are now wagging their fingers at MPs. When the dust settles, they intend to claim said beasts under "local transport".

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Written byToby Young

Toby Young is the co-author of What Every Parent Needs to Know and the co-founder of several free schools. In addition to being an associate editor of The Spectator, he is an associate editor of Quillette. Follow him on Twitter @toadmeister

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