Could accepting freebies land journalists in jail?

A lawyer has warned that journalists accepting freebies could be at risk of committing a criminal offence following the introduction of new bribery laws last month.

It comes after an anonymous fashion journalist this week lifted the lid on the freebie culture that is deeply ingrained at some titles.

Writing in The Times, the magazine journalist said: ‘Right now, crammed under my desk, in paper bags, wrapped in ripped tissue, or just on the floor, there’s more than £3,000 worth of stuff.”

All had been sent in the past fortnight and included a BlackBerry (£200), a pair of ballet pumps (£190), ankle boots (£340), a leather bag (£850), a digital camera (£60), a leather jacket (£240), and a pair of diamond earrings (£110).

Even the computer she wrote the article on, a £999 Apple Powerbook, was a gift from a new leather laptop bag company, the writer said.

‘I am a magazine fashion editor, and this is our dirty little secret… we supplement our lower-than-you’d- think wages with thousands of pounds worth of free stuff,’she said.

She added: ‘But, if everyone is to take Kenneth Clarke’s new Bribery Act – which came into force at the beginning of last month – seriously, then my way of life is over.”

The new Bribery Act came into force on 1 July and is now considered one of the most stringent sets of bribery laws anywhere in the world.

It defines bribery as giving a financial, or other advantage, with the intention of inducing the recipient to ‘improperly’perform a position of trust, or a ‘function’that is expected to be performed impartially or in good faith.

This is potenitally a risk for the company that sends out the gifts, such as a PR organisation, as well as the publisher. Receiving a bribe intending to perform such a function “improperly” is also an offence under the Act.

Breach of the law is up for interpretation but is based on the ‘expectations’ of a reasonable person in the UK.

The penalties can be severe – up to 10 years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine for individuals, while companies who failed to prevent bribery face an unlimited fine.

Lawyer Ben Whitelock, of media law firm Wiggin, said that in the case of the fashion editor mentioned above there was a risk for both the individual journalist and the company supplying the goods.

The crucial part is the intention for ‘improper performance”, which Whitelock said ‘is often going to be difficult to prove because it is unlikely to be glaringly obvious in relation to a piece of editorial”.

But he added that journalists ‘should at least be aware of the individual offence of receiving a bribe”, and that, in the case of the fashion editor, ‘there’s the potential for an individual to commit a crime in these circumstances”.

Whitelock acts for a number of publishers. ‘What many of them are doing is making it clear that if staff receive any form of gift they can’t keep them; they are property of the company and are usually given to charity,’he said. ‘They want to be seen as being impartial.”

Many have formalised their policies and informed staff of the new protocols, but ‘the smaller the company, the less across these issues they’re likely to be”, he said.

‘From a reputational perspective I imagine most of the larger companies would have a policy in place so they can be seen to be impartial,’he added.

A corporate defence against bribery exists if the company can show that it has ‘adequate procedures’in place to prevent corruption, meaning the company that employs the journalist is at less risk.

The fashion editor, meanwhile, claimed the freebie culture was now so ingrained that ‘it will take a generation of magazine staff to change how they work and PRs will have to restructure how they sell products and designers.

‘My hope is that the new Bribery Act will be a good move, making the industry fairer and ensuring that everyone works a bit smarter, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

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