MPs Paid To Talk

The Observer 31-10-1993

The full version of an investigative piece which appeared in The Observer on 31-10-1993, exposing a widespread practice among British MPs of charging foreign journalists for interviews and comments.

Members of Parliament who insist on charging London-based foreign correspondents for interviews are bringing British politics into disrepute, it was claimed last week (19-10-93).

Foreign journalists, who generally blame the BBC for institutionalising a practice which is almost unique to Britain, say that approximately half the MPs they approach for their views on political events regularly want to know whether they will be paid and how much is on offer. They say that MPs frequently claim that because they are paid by the BBC they are entitled to payments from foreign journalists.

The BBC, which will be circulating an internal memorandum to producers in mid-November reminding them not to pay for the political and party-political views of MPs, denies that the practice is widespread and that the BBC is responsible for establishing a profit-making industry from political opinions.

"This is a well-established practice in the UK," says French journalist Pierre Falga. "It certainly applies to all radio and television although the position for print journalists is not so clear. They demand their little inducements."

And the inducements can build up. At between £50 and £300 per interview, an MP with appropriate political interests or languages offering just one interview per week to any of the scores of foreign news organisations in London might, on average, earn anything from £5,000 to £10,000 per year.

"Only a few don't mention payment," says a London bureau journalist for Japanese TV who, like many others, wishes to remain anonymous for fear that MPs will not speak to them in future. "As servants of the nation they shouldn't really be charging, but we have to buy their time if we want their views."

Despite veteran experience of world class political corruption in Japan, Japanese correspondents are amazed at the acquisitiveness of British MPs who can demand up to £300 and a courtesy car to take them to the studios.

"I don't think we pay our politicians in Japan and after all the recent corruption scandals we certainly hope we won't have to pay them in the future."

The Japanese claim to have paid several hundred pounds on several occasions to Tory MP John Biffen (Shropshire North). They also recall offering payments of several hundred pounds to former Prime Minister and Tory MP Sir Edward Heath (Old Bexley & Sidcup) though he was unwilling to discuss any payments he might have received.

John Biffen does not regard the practice as disreputable. Not denying that he has often charged foreign journalists for interviews and confirming that he is regularly paid by some BBC programmes for his political views, he says he doesn't think there's anything wrong with British or foreign organisations paying for comments.

"Certain public figures and politicians have an expertise that makes it reasonable that they should be paid for it," he says from his Shropshire constituency.

The free-market system of paying MPs is almost unique to Britain although major TV companies in the United States are apparently also willing to pay for politicians' views.

One factor which is said to have encouraged the practice is the high proportion of air-time given to politics in Britain compared with other countries in Europe, thus providing MPs with a seller's market. The popular press in the UK is also said to set a climate in which anything interesting has its price.

Bertrand Vanier, formerly London correspondent for Radio France-Inter, thinks the system brings British politics into disrepute:

"The system of paying MPs was new to me and I didn't agree with it," says Vanier. "It is unknown in France. I made a rule for myself. If the MP was speaking on a subject about which he was a specialist, or had a political interest, I refused to pay him and probably he refused to speak to me."

"Hugh Dykes (Tory MP for Harrow East), however, is a good French speaker and I seem to recall paying him in French francs.

"I never had to pay a Labour MP or a minister such as John Gummer. Otherwise, I found I had to pay MPs about £100 if they came to the studio or about £60 for a phone interview."

A London correspondent for Suisse-Romande TV says he reckons 50 per cent of MPs ask if payment will be made.

"What tends to happen is that you ring their office and they, or their secretaries, ask if they will be paid for an interview. Otherwise you catch them on Palace Green at Westminster and they very often ask, before anything else, whether there's money in it for them."

Suisse-Romande claims that its most remarkable experience concerned John Biffen who, they allege, would only speak for a fee of around £50 and subsequently sent a reminder, under an official letterhead, that payment was due.

"We had that letter hanging up in the office for months because we found it so outrageous and funny. But it seems the British regard it as quite normal. And I have a receipt in front of me, for £50, from John Wilkinson (Tory MP for Ruislip, Northwood) on House of Commons' stationery."

Mr Wilkinson acknowledges that he has frequently charged French, German and Spanish news organisations for his views and, as a qualified interpreter, sees nothing wrong in selling his expertise.

"People such as Ken Livingston, Austin Mitchell and Edwina Currie are constantly on radio and television and I'm sure they're paid a lot for it. People get paid quite a lot for appearing on Any Questions. I don't see what's wrong with it. I think the BBC will be unwise not to pay MPs for foreign language programmes they may find the supply will dry up."

It is undoubtedly true that there has been a significant growth in the past ten years in the number of MPs who have developed lucrative parallel careers, under contract, as show business entertainers on national and local radio and TV. Nevertheless, many MPs acknowledge that there are grey areas in the BBC's payments for some domestic programmes where licence-payers find themselves funding MPs for promoting their party's political policies.

The well-established system offends many foreign news organisations who consider that MPs are already paid generous salaries, expenses and pensions for representing their constituencies, their parties and parliament, and even the Italians appear to be amazed by the effrontery of British parliamentarians.

"In Italy it's more likely that the MPs would try to pay us to get their faces on TV," says a reporter for Rai-Uno.

A correspondent for French TF1 says that although the system surprises her, she regularly pays "at the tariff paid to MPs by the BBC". She says she doesn't pay if she catches an MP in a House of Commons corridor for a quick comment, but almost certainly has to pay if she rings to arrange an interview. The most 'astronomical' sums go to MPs with specialities such as commenting on the Royal Family. She says she would be interested to know whether the BBC's foreign correspondents in Paris have to pay French MPs.

"If French MPs accept payments from the BBC then I can hardly criticise the British," she says.

But, it seems, they are not. The BBC's foreign news editor Chris Wyld cannot remember a single occasion when he has offered or has been required to pay a French MP or any other politician overseas.

"I think we've had extreme nationalist politicians in Belgrade asking for vast sums but we simply walked away from them. Otherwise, as far as news reports are concerned, we just don't pay anybody – British MPs or Foreign MPs."

But, while the BBC is seen by nearly all foreign correspondents as, unintentionally, responsible for institutionalising the system of payments to MPs on a tariff basis, at anything from £30 – £120, and while many MPs acknowledge receiving payments from BBC programmes, the corporation's controller of editorial policy, Richard Ayre, strongly denies that the BBC has established an unethical precedent which others have to follow.

Nevertheless, a new internal memorandum, Producers' Guidelines , is due for circulation at the BBC by mid-November and will outlaw the practice of paying appearance fees to MPs in all but the most exceptional circumstances.

"There's a general policy that we do not ordinarily pay MPs for contributions to news and current affairs programmes when they're talking party politics or about public issues," Richard Ayre maintains, though he cannot categorically deny that MPs are sometimes paid for appearances on other programmes.

"If foreign news services find themselves being charged by MPs who demand to be paid at some 'BBC tariff' rate, then presumably the MPs have successfully bluffed their way into negotiating a good deal for themselves which is nothing to do with us," he adds.

Mr Ayre also denies that public criticism of the BBC by foreign correspondents in London has spurred the BBC into defensive action by issuing the Producers' Guidelines: "All we are doing is clarifying existing policy," he says.

Privately, journalists at the BBC acknowledge that the practice of paying MPs for appearances on radio and TV is often standard practice, a matter which many MPs willingly confirm. Furthermore, paying MPs to be both entertaining and politically robust on Question Time or Any Questions presents the BBC with a dilemma. While they may have been chosen because they are good performers, few MPs miss the opportunity to sell a party-political line.

"Overwhelmingly," insists Richard Ayre, "interviews and appearances do not attract a fee and I think MPs see it as their duty to express their opinions on day-to-day events without payment. There are exceptions in unusual circumstances when, for example, they're called upon to spend hours in studios waiting to comment on election results or when they are speaking in a private or professional capacity as lawyers, businessmen or journalists."

Such, however, is not the experience of a London correspondent for Europe 1 radio:

"One pro-Europe Tory MP, Hugh Dykes, will not open his mouth before a fee has been agreed," she alleges. "I think I've paid John Wilkinson and George Walden (Tory MP for Buckingham)."

"Yes, I've been paid once by Europe 1 radio," George Walden agrees, "but when you bear in mind the cost and losses involved in so many interviews I've done without payment I find this whole argument very petty."

The Europe 1 correspondent believes that though she has to follow the general rate established by the BBC, the practice could be excused if it 'oils the wheels' and avoids the ill-humoured condescension of some French MPs who feel they're doing the journalist and viewers a favour by answering their questions.

Nevertheless, she thinks that performing interviews for foreign correspondents has become virtually a second profession for many MPs who have come to regard themselves as political consultants despite the fact that, in her experience, City analysts and businessmen are never paid for their views. Interestingly she has no memory of ever having to pay a Labour MP.

At least one Labour MP, Paul Boeteng (Brent South), readily acknowledges having been paid by both the BBC and foreign news services, but has, he says, a firm policy regarding payments for interviews:

"I don't charge if it's in relation to my front bench or constituency responsibilities but otherwise I would expect them to pay in the same way that the BBC or ITV does."

He has no memory of discussing a £100 – £200 interview with Suisse-Romande radio in the Great Hall at the Palace of Westminster shortly after the historic election of four black MPs to parliament in 1987, and says this would not in any event have breached his own principles if indeed it did take place as Suisse-Romande's correspondent claims.

Foreign reporters, too, have established ground rules. A French correspondent for Radio France used to make it clear that, as a freelance, he had no resources to pay for interviews and at first found doors closed in his face. Only once was he made to pay for an interview £60 for a three minute telephone interview again, he alleges, with Hugh Dykes.

An allegation by a French TF1 reporter that she, on behalf the now defunct French TV channel La Cinq, discussed an interview for £15,000 with the then Margaret Thatcher, shortly after her resignation as Prime Minister but while still MP for Finchley, has, however, been strongly denied by Lady Thatcher's representatives. Abel Haddon, her press secretary at the time, has no recollection of any discussions with foreign news organisations, with or without negotiations for payment. He is, he assures The Observer, amazed to hear that MPs have been paid for interviews by either the BBC or foreign journalists.

Less surprised at the suggestion that Lady Thatcher's views might command £15,000 for an interview was a former senior Tory Cabinet Minister and a former colleague of Lady Thatcher.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all if that were the case," he comments ruefully, adding that he has never received anything like that much, perhaps a few hundred occasionally, and that it is no secret that the BBC and other radio and TV organisations regularly pay for political opinions such as his own.

He says he can't see what's wrong with it since British independent television and news organisations are themselves making a profit from interviewing MPs. He adds that he turns down far more offers than he accepts.

This week (21 October 1993), Labour's Environment spokesman, Jack Straw, published a survey showing that coverage of parliamentary debates in British broadsheet newspapers has declined by at least 50 per cent over the last 60 years. 'The Decline in Press Reporting of Parliament', however, does not specify whether MPs are now more or less content to see and hear their views expressed for a fee on TV and radio rather than gazetted gratis on the political pages of the declining circulations of the daily prints.

The House of Commons' Register of Members' Interests does not require MPs to declare any fees or benefits they receive except in the case of company directorships and shareholdings.

This issue was one of many practices – many far more serious than this – that came to characterise British Conservative governments by the late 1980s and 1990s. In the end the 'sleaze' issue associated with John Major's last government resulted in the most resounding defeat recorded in modern British history. In 1997 voters decided that they could no longer tolerate the complacency, arrogance, hypocrisy and a seemingly endless succession of financial, sexual and moral scandals. In a phrase, the Conservatives were perceived to be 'uncaring' and 'careless' and worst of all, it seemed, 'couldn't care less'.

© (1993) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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