Last week an utterly lovely - and extremely honest - woman who runs a PR company told me that she has quite often paid city journalists to plug her products. Paid them. Not taken them on freebie weekends away or sent them hampers. Paid them.
Just the other day I was told of a very high-profile political journalist who has a lucrative sideline in writing speeches for a leading party's top brass. I once bumped into an editor who had enjoyed a weekend freebie in a charming house on the country estate of a political party's chief financial backer.
Restaurant critics review their friends' new openings. Sports writers place stories that are fed to them by grasping agents. Authors praise fellow writers' books that they know are poorly-written but feel obliged to be nice because they have the same agent. Fashion editors don't want you to know what's in their vast cupboards because you'd be shocked by the amount of free clothes they get given in exchange for nice articles.
I used to work with someone who accepted lucrative presents from a famous entrepreneur every time a positive story of his business appeared and I myself have written lovely travel articles about companies who insisted I didn't owe them a penny.
Bribery, illegal payments, financial inducements, the dark arts of manipulation and influence. This is what steers the British media and to be honest most of it is pretty harmless. But it happens on a massive scale. I'm honestly not sure if it's right or not. It's legal but is it moral? I don't think so.
Politicians being paid by lobbyists to push certain agendas within the House of Commons is, of course, different - they are MPs and Lords who rely on the public purse and are thus answerable to the taxpayers - but these recent 'sting' operations by the BBC's Panorama and The Daily Telegraph also have some similarities to the media black market.
For a start, what they've exposed has always happened and always will, no matter what constraints you put on it. It's not the end of the world. Money greases levers. Big deal. If politicians - who are extraordinarily poorly paid for what they do - can get a little extra cash for asking a few questions (not create policy, ask questions), is that really any different from, say, a newspaper editor accepting a Christmas hamper?
I don't like it but it doesn't surprise me. The lobbyists aren't at fault, they're just doing the fat cats' bidding. And those fat cats aren't at fault because, whether you're comforatble with it or not, they are helping the country grow whilst lining their own pockets.
And I would say the politicians are not at fault because they are just susceptible, vain fools whose relatively small salaries encourage them to behave nefariously.
The real fault lies with us. We are hypocrites, especially in the media. We break the rules and insist it's just the way things are. We defend the black market and take what we can. And we treat public officials with such disdain that we pay them less than footballers playing in the third division and then crucify them when they step out of line.
What really angers us about this story? That these MPs have done what they did to earn extra cash, or that we can't?Suggest a correction