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.
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Monday 03 March 1997
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.'
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