Credit: Pixabay

When Kenyan journalist Edwin Okoth was investigating how British American Tobacco (BAT) has targeted young non-smokers, he got involved in a curious exchange of text messages.

An employee of a Kenyan PR agency who worked with BAT at the time was at first just eager to know how his work was going. But then, Okoth got a straightforward message asking 'What is your price?' for leaking information about the investigation.

He understood immediately where this was going and decided not to engage, he said about this experience when speaking at the Who pays when a journalist is bribed: uncovering a hidden scandal event organised by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ).

While uncharacteristically direct, Okoth's experience is more common than the media industry dares to admit. From offering journalists products, holidays or tickets to matches, to offering money, there are many ways corporations attempt to influence the news coverage. The question is: where do you draw the line between favours and corruption?

"Managing media"

Many tobacco, alcohol and drug companies work with PR agencies to "manage media", said John Githongo, CEO of Inuka Kenya Trust, former journalist and authority on bribery, fraud and corruption in Kenya, also speaking at the event.

Although he spent decades investigating corruption, even he was surprised by the boldness of the message that Okoth received. He reasoned that this could be due to the pandemic as these conversations normally take place face-to-face, in bars or outside spaces.

Although this case happened in Kenya, attempts to bribe the press are not unheard of in the UK.

So just how likely are you to be persecuted if you get involved in corruption?

The Bribery Act 2010 is a piece of UK legislation that aims to fight corruption in the country but you can also be prosecuted if you offer or receive a bribe abroad, according to another speaker Nicola O'Connor, legal director at Bird & Bird, also a white-collar and corporate crime specialist.

The legislation details different offences but, broadly speaking, you are guilty of bribery if you offer or receive money or other advantages in exchange for a service that goes against one’s job duties. For a journalist, this could mean that someone pays you to suppress negative information about them and give your reporting a positive spin.

Prevention is the best cure

As the anti-corruption laws became more sophisticated since the mid-1990s, said Githongo, actors willing to bribe journalists or public officials turned to marketing and advertisement firms who act as third parties. One of the most famous recent cases involved the now-defunct prestigious UK PR firm Bell Pottinger and their controversial campaign that stirred racial tensions in South Africa to divert attention from a political scandal.

If the Bell Pottinger story taught us anything, Githongo continued, it is that we need legislation to regulate these intermediaries who get commissioned by wealthy corporations or individuals to do dirty work. The problem with reputation agencies who market themselves as ‘damage control’, added O’Connor, is that corruption is often not that easy to prove.

Speakers agreed that anti-corruption legislation and prosecution are the most efficient tools to fight bribery. But for the big tobacco, alcohol and other corporations, the prosecution is the preferred playing field as they can pay lawyers to keep a case in the court for decades until the will to prosecute them fizzles out.

The most important goal, however, is to change the culture around how bribing is viewed, especially in countries where corruption is, or was, frequent.

Where is the line?

Most journalists have been offered lunches, products or trips from PR firms or corporations. Is that a bribe?

O'Connor explained that hospitality and gifts are not illegal unless the giver expects something in return they would not get otherwise.

But these are subtle differences. When you are taking trips or accept gifts, you are often expected to fulfil the "unmentioned favour", warned Okoth. To play it safely, say straightaway that accepting a gift does not automatically result in favourable coverage.

Media organisations can also set limits to prevent unethical behaviour. For instance, if the value of a gift exceeds a certain amount, the staff have to refuse.

Maintaining our ethical standards when reporting on unethical behaviour is crucial, especially as journalists have been pretty much outflanked by influencers in this space. An Instagrammer or a YouTuber can accept money or goodies and spread any kind of message without much trouble. Given that they are followed by younger audiences who are often less likely to get their news from the media, the potential of spreading misinformation is huge.

"Influencers are another space that needs to get more regulated," concluded Githongo.

Looking for a job in the media? Subscribe to our daily newsletter and keep an eye on our jobs board for the latest announcements.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).