Evil taxman shock rocks free press

Alas, alack. Is nothing sacred? Whatever journalists' self-image now (`honest, fearless'), from April they must assess themselves as poorer, sadder folk.

A horrible susurration, like a rumour of war, is going round the world of journalism. Heads are being shaken in features departments from Derry Street (the Mail, the Evening Standard) to Canary Wharf (The Independent, The Mirror, The Telegraph). Specialists in motoring, fashion, health, food, drink, music, travel and related leisure areas are looking into a blank future.

Can it be true? Are they really going to tax press trips, PR presents and free samples from now on? Is it really curtains for the freebie, the bunce and the jolly?

It started with a cloud no bigger than a man's hand, with a slight adjustment to the nation's tax returns. From this April, a new regime of self-assessment will demand that employees come clean as to the exact nature of the fringe benefits attaching to their jobs. Before, the Revenue would simply have asked the employer, who would declare, on a form called a P11D, what he knew of the employees' salary, expenses and agreed benefits. But if an employee were receiving additional perks from outside his place of work, it was never mentioned. The employer's ignorance kept the taxman at bay.

From now on, however, all will be different. Every employee will have to declare, on a P11D form, all the things he has received from companies other than his own, whether they be free holidays, buckshee computers, "on loan" waistcoats or "free gift" cases of Krug and Sevruga. If a company should be kind enough to send you a complete box-set of the Ring cycle, as an encouragement to praise their new ring-binders, they will be expected to indicate the likely value of the gift, to assist the Revenue in assessing your tax liability...

An attack on "freebies", as gifts and free holidays are known, will affect many professions, from medicine (pharmaceutical companies regularly offer doctors free trips to the Bahamas to hear a "lecture" on a new drug "breakthrough") to catering; but journalists, you may or may not be saddened to hear, will be especially affected. For ever since journalism took its first toddler steps from the reporting of news into the ethical maelstrom of consumer reviews and lifestyle opinions, the freebie has existed, somewhere between an innocent gift from a kindly disposed manufacturer and a barefaced bribe to a bent scribe.

Some free items are necessities, without which the newspaper's departments couldn't function - the music page needs the new records, the books page the new hardbacks, the fashion spread the latest frocks - but some go beyond the strictly utilitarian. No one knows which PR agency first decided to market their client's champagne by sending a party of journalists on a hard-hitting, fact-finding, expenses-paid trip of the Champagne region, but it struck a reverberating chord in the heart of every desk-bound hack.

"Fact-finding missions" became quite the thing. Corporate euphemisms flourished. "We shall be happy to put our resources at your disposal for the duration of your research" meant you could score a free ticket to Cannes while writing about an airline. "An opportunity to see for yourself..." was the wording from a thousand travel firms anxious to impress you with their new time-share resort west of Malaga.

And so the press trip was born, in which a gang of journalists from the national press, the provincial papers, women's magazines and trade journals, would meet at Heathrow, exchange desultory conversation like shy participants before an orgy, then spend five days sipping pina coladas by a pool, interspersed with trooping round some undistinguished new leisure complex admiring the bathroom suites and the conference facilities. Sometimes they got on (or got off) with each other; more often they were glad to wave goodbye, as they dispersed back in Terminal One, bloated, cirrhotic and weighed down with gifts of specialist foods and key-rings from hotel managers and airline marketing departments.

I've been thus accommodated - oh, a couple of dozen times in the past, before I joined The Independent, which high-mindedly frowns on anything that might be construed as a bribe. I once spent a week in Jamaica with a dozen female travel agents, courtesy of an Anglo-Caribbean holiday firm; other times to Stockholm, to South Africa, to Thailand and Japan and Finland, "hosted" by airlines and hotel companies and liquor firms. My favourite freebie was a pair of tickets on the Orient Express from Venice to London, as part of my researches into Sea Containers' sponsorship of an art exhibition.

A bit of research round the offices revealed umpteen such confessions: the record company who flew one journo, then on Melody Maker, to a 10CC concert in Japan - but flew him in a plane with the band, taking in Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong along the way. The legendary trip to the Roger Taylor Tennis Centre in Portugal, where each hack was given the run of a villa, a car, a gold credit card and a local senorita (although they were too plastered on 1961 Veuve Cliquot to avail themselves of the latter). The motoring correspondent who was flown to Nice with 13 others by a Japanese car manufacturer, who fed them a huge champagne lunch before giving them the keys to seven new Jaguars...

Under the new dispensation, free trips that are unrelated to work will be declarable as a benefit in kind, and their cash value liable to tax. Journeys made legitimately for work, but extended in order to take in a day on the beach, will likewise be taxable for the extra period. If a travel company "facilitates" you for a non-work holiday and gives you a First Class seat, you'll be taxed on the cost of that, rather than the steerage seat you would have chosen, had you been paying for yourself.

The other grey area is gifts. Several desks at a newspaper office metaphorically groan with consumer items sent by manufacturers, usually intended for the "Shopping" page but randomly thrown at the odd journalist in the hope of a diary paragraph. These can be dismissed as "unsolicited mail", without worrying about the imminent arrival of a bill. Less easy to dismiss is the "bunce", the journalistic equivalent of a "bung" and loosely defined as an unexpected but welcome addendum to a journalistic enterprise. A columnist friend who writes about fitness for a men's magazine is the proud owner of a computerised gymnasium, sent round one day - purely on spec - by the manufacturer. If my friend keeps the pounds 1,000-worth of equipment, is he liable for tax? You bet. That means un petit cadeau from a canny marketing department will end up costing him pounds 400 - and probably an additional fine for non-declaration. Is it worth it for pectorals like that?

As the news spreads, journalists are looking into their cupboards, mailbags and memories with a sense of foreboding. A former literary editor, I'm used to receiving several thousand books a year, only a fraction of which can be sent for review. Am I taxable on the ones I decide to keep? Yes I am (although there's a personal allowance on "third-party gifts" of a handsome pounds 150). Likewise CDs, audio books and a projected trip to the Caribbean to write about a food festival. On my right, a woman on the Independent magazine is looking consternatedly at several items - a pair of fluffy insoles, a sink unblocker, a jar of Tomato and Black Olive Stir- in Pasta Sauce, a jar of Gerard House pills for Temporary Fatigue - and wondering what her liability will be, should she keep any of them.

I rang the Revenue. They were professionally enervated, quite unexcited by the panic in Journo-land. Third-party gifts and holidays have always been taxable, they said, it's nothing new. It's only self-assessment that's changed. "And we are putting increasing resources," said the voice, "into investigating Compliance." What's that? "Let's just say it's about making sure everyone pays the right amount of tax," said the voice, smooth as an executioner's. But no journalist I'd ever met (I insisted) would think of declaring a freebie trip on a tax form. "I'm afraid you and your colleagues must gird your loins, from April," said the Eternal Taxman, and rang offn

Robert Harris, columnist and best selling novelist

`I regret to say that I've never really had any freebies come my way, at much distress to my wife, who's often asked me why we aren't getting to go to the Caribbean or wherever. It's all passed me by. I get sent a lot of books, but that's only because I write a column and review books from time to time. I suppose I should take this opportunity to appeal to all travel editors who need somebody to go somewhere.

`If they're going to put a tax on freebies that'll be a journalistic Black Death. I know people who've never paid for a holiday in their life, and they never write the thing up when they've been either. I've paid for holidays, and then have found senior journalists at the same place for free. But I say all this bitterly, rather than in a state of moral indignation.'

William Deedes, ex-editor of the Daily Telegraph and at 83 the most `senior' working journalist of all

`There's been a big diminishment in all this. Now, the Inland Revenue - and newspapers themselves - are beginning to disapprove. I do think Andreas Whittam Smith's policy at The Independent has had some bearing on this, it has influenced some editors' attitudes.

`Thirty or 40 years ago, I went to North and South Rhodesia, at the expense of the copper belt companies - I was an MP at the time - and that was wholly approved of by the government department, but custom has changed since then. The only freebies that are left, really, are travel ones, where a press agent in charge of a resort pays for you to go and hopes you will write something nice about it. I think that's quite harmless.

`The last freebie I went on was to Canada with Peter McKay five or six years ago, where we played golf in the Rockies. That was a lot of fun, and we wrote quite a decent travel piece on it. But I don't do them now - I haven't the time - and if one came my way I'd say that I'd pay.'

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Sergio Romero saves Wesley Sneijder's penalty
world cup 2014But after defeating the Dutch, Lionel Messi and Argentina will walk out at the Maracana on Sunday as underdogs against Germany
Scoreboard at the end of the semi-final World Cup match between Brazil and Germany at The Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte
'Saddest man in Brazil' takes defeat with good grace, handing replica trophy to German fans
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman and Lauren O'Neil in Jamie Lloyd's Richard III
theatreReview: The monarch's malign magnetism and diabolic effrontery aren’t felt
Glamour magazine hosts a yoga class with Yogalosophy author Mandy Ingber on June 10, 2013 in New York City.
newsFather Padraig O'Baoill said the exercise was 'unsavoury' in a weekly parish newsletter
people'She is unstoppable', says Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris show
Alexis Sanchez and apparently his barber Carlos Moles in Barcelona today
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips
Arts and Entertainment
In his own words: Oscar Wilde in 1882
theatreNew play by the Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials - and what they reveal about the man
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m
filmWith US films earning record-breaking amounts at the Chinese box office, Hollywood is more than happy to take its lead from its new-found Asian audience
The garage was up for sale in Canning Place Mews for £500,000
newsGarage for sale for £500,000
Life and Style
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

ERP Business/ Implementation Analyst

£40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: This is an e...

Business Intelligence Program Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: BI Project / Program Manager BI Project...

Radian6/Social Media/Digital Analyst

£250 - £300 per day: Progressive Recruitment: LEAD DIGITAL ANALYST - CONTRACT ...

Head of Technology - London - Up to £70K + Benefits

£60000 - £70000 per annum: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Head of Technology -...

Day In a Page

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil