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In the news: the art of expenses

Former correspondent John Morrison has been interviewed on radio about journalists' expenses following the humiliation of a British government minister over a claim for two pornographic films watched by her husband while she was away.

"Reuters had a legendary journalism tutor called George Short and he used to make sure that young journalists were fully briefed on expenses, which was just as important as writing stories,” Morrison said.

“He used to tell the story about the stringer in the far north of Alaska who used to claim every month for a fleet of husky dogs, and when this was queried and his boss was going to visit and said ‘Can I see the dogs?’ suddenly the dogs had to be put down because they were ill. But that also went on expenses...”

Morrison (Reuters 1971-2000 – Moscow, Vienna, The Hague, Paris, Harare, Westminster lobby correspondent and now a freelance writer) said he picked up a few tips in Moscow and the former Soviet bloc. 

“The tip is really to travel to as many countries as possible, all using different currencies,” he said in the interview, which was taped in a Fleet Street pub and aired on Sunday on the BBC Radio 4 programme Broadcasting House.

Did he think everyone was on the fiddle, that there was a culture of legendary expenses on Fleet Street?

“Well, I think it was certainly much easier in those days, because these days if an accountant queries your expenses he can just call you up on your Blackberry wherever you are. Even if you’re paddling up the Zambezi, you’re not out of contact, whereas 20, 30 years ago you sent in your expenses by cleft stick or whatever and it was quite difficult for the accountant to reach you and query them...

“I do remember a trip to, somewhere in Austria or Italy, with the parliamentary lobby. We all went to a summit and we all went out to a restaurant. Lobby journalists are not terribly well known for their language skills so I quite often translated the menu and ordered the food. And I do remember saying to the waiter, ‘Well, we’ll have three bottles of house wine, please’. And there was a deathly silence from all around me, and from the end of the table a loud voice said, ‘I did not come into journalism to drink the house wine’. So I never made that mistake again.

“There is a problem if you go out in a group and you can’t actually spend enough. One of the great George Short mottos was: never charge less than the last bloke did. I do remember a Lobby trip to South Africa. We got together and as usual tried to find the most expensive restaurant in town. This was at a period when the rand had plummeted against sterling. And so we all had our prawns and our lobsters and our bill came at the end for several thousand rand but when we worked it out, catastrophe - it was only £15 a head.”

Rodney Pinder also remembers a few tales about expenses. “I recall one day in bleakest London being invited into Jack Henry's office. We chatted about the weather and some African country I was about to be assigned to and after an hour or so's pleasantries he said he was going to tell me a story. I leaned forward in expectation of a penetrating glimpse of the hazards of hacking in the heart of darkness.

"’A friend of mine was standing in the Strand outside the law courts the other day when he saw someone he knew from the Telegraph sprinting past,’ related Jack.

"’My friend shouted to his friend: 'What are you doing?'

"’Taking a taxi,' his friend gasped.

“Finished, Jack leaned back in his chair, a slight smile playing on his lips.

"’Sorry, Jack,’ was all I could think of saying, ‘Don't get it.’"

Expenses managers and overseers must have had a difficult life, Pinder said. “Old salts and training editors like fabled George Short used to drum into recruits that expenses forms offered fact-bound journalists their greatest opportunity for creative writing. Many grabbed the chance with imagination and wit.

“A big-byline AP correspondent once was assigned to a story, big news at the time but forgotten now, in backwoods Armpitville, Miss.

“He submitted his exes and shortly thereafter was summoned into the presence of the Chief Accountant in his eyrie at Rockefeller Plaza.

"’How on earth can you spend 50 dollars a day in Armpitville?’" demanded the bean counter (this was in the 60s).

"’It was difficult,’ responded the big byline. ‘I just had to do without breakfast.’

“His expenses were approved.

“My introduction to journalist salaries and expenses came at the Hendon Times where I was paid a spectacular £10 a week plus £4 expenses allowance.

“Once I had to go to the Managing Editor and say ‘Please, Sir, I need some more’ as I had overspent my allowance by two shillings, necessitated by taking a taxi to the crematorium for a last-minute assignment. (Too far to run!)

“He was scared witless at the thought of having to justify this extravagance to his boss so he grabbed his purse and shook out the extra two bob himself. Shamelessly, I took it (my rent was four guineas a week).

“A few years later I was moonlighting on the Daily Mirror. I submitted my first expenses and was swiftly called to the desk of the purple-faced News Editor.

“‘This is not acceptable, laddie,’ he spluttered, brandishing my modest paperwork. ‘What are you trying to do to us? Go away and don't come back until you double it. If you can't do proper exes you're not up to the job.’

“Foreign correspondents were high-end practitioners of the fine art of expenses. But they probably had an advantage as they worked in strange, far-flung places of which we knew little, far from the accountants' natural habitats in Croydon and Potters Bar.

“There are tales of costs claimed to replace Louis Vuitton bags thrown out of a hot air balloon as it struggled for height; costs for ladies of the night appearing on hotel bills in the light of day as laundry; costs for (phantom) TV crews accompanying a lone correspondent across Africa; kwacha transmuted by some strange alchemy into sterling between Lusaka and London. And so on.

“One top correspondent was caught out charging for a lawnmower for his home. Someone in Head Office remembered visiting him in his top-floor flat. Another creative writer was about to submit a pet's vet bill as a personal medical expense when at the last minute he or she noticed at the foot of the account amongst services offered by the practice the item ‘euthanasia’.”

John Owen-Davies believes the husky story related by Morrison “may be a spin-off from the one about the Daily Express chap who, in the 1967 Six Day War, claimed on return from Egypt the princely sum of £50 for hire of one camel. When challenged, he added an extra £50 ‘for burial of one camel’ - and won the day.

“On the Daily Telegraph one old timer sent to Prague in 1967 attached to his exes a somewhat flattened pair of shoes of top quality hide. He claimed for a new pair saying they had been flattened by a Soviet tank. He, too, got his cash. Sure, the shoes were flattened but it was believed someone had trod on them in the King and Keys.”

Andy Hill remembers Paris in the 1970s:

“Andy Hill to news editor Julian Nundy: ‘Julian. Why do you close your eyes when you sign my expenses?’

“Nundy to AJH: ‘Because I never read fiction.’"

Bernard Edinger recalls this story about expenses told to him by Ron Thompson:

“When the Korean War broke out in 1950, no one had any staff correspondents in Korea or who knew anything about the place.

“A very large British news organisation latched on to a Scot who lived in Seoul and who turned out to be a magnificent war correspondent who provided them with excellent coverage during the three-year-long conflict.

“After the war, his employers decided to integrate this man into its regular ranks and made him their Tokyo correspondent.

“Not much was happening however in Tokyo and the correspondent spent his free time as best as he could. Among other things, he was particularly appreciative of young Japanese ladies of uncertain morality and he would take one of them to an expensive restaurant every week, putting down the expense as ‘dinner with the Polish Air Attaché’.

“One day, the news organisation’s auditing team picked Tokyo as one of the several bureaux whose accounts they chose at random to inspect that year.

“The correspondent subsequently got the following message:

“‘Dear Mr X,

“‘We have been going through your expenses and find that you regularly dine at considerable expense with the Air Attaché at the Polish embassy. We have consulted the diplomatic list for Japan and found that there is no Air Attaché at the Polish embassy in Tokyo. Would you kindly explain ... etc, etc’

“To which the correspondent replied ‘The cad! I shall never invite him to dinner again!’”

And how about the Saigon jeep? “I tell this tale as told to me by someone who was there,” Rick Norsworthy relates.

“The boys in the Saigon bureau decided they were overworked and underpaid. To do something about this, they bought a jeep. This jeep was overpriced but the bureau decided to buy it anyway even though it existed only in the bureau accounts. This imaginary jeep proved very expensive to run. It guzzled gas, and repair bills were high, it even had a name which became well-known throughout the region and to the accounts department in London. Its name escapes me. If a visitor passing through Saigon found out about the jeep, he or she was sworn to secrecy. All members of the Saigon bureau were beneficiaries of the jeep, until one day the boys heard that Brian Horton, the editor-in-chief, was visiting Saigon. On arrival Horton expressed a keen interest to see the jeep. That day it broke down for the last time, and was towed away before the editor-in-chief could see it. Both Horton and the boys in the bureau were disappointed.”

Expenses even rated a mention in one of the eulogies at Patrick Massey’s funeral on Monday. Former Financial Times correspondent David Lennon recounted how Massey once queried a bill that included high charges for using the telex at a Middle East hotel.

It was discreetly explained that “telex” really meant alcoholic drinks and was for the sake of Arab journalists who drank but dared not indicate it on their expenses.

“Ah," said Massey, reassured. “Time for a telex, then.” ■