You can't trust those dirty, lying hacks

Journalists boast that they are the public's guardians against corruption. Yet their own unregulated

''It's so unfair," the Ghanaian photographer complained to me. "Unlike the writers, I'm not allowed into the side room at the end. How can I make a living?" After press conferences, most Ghanaian journalists go to a room to pick up an envelope stuffed with cash. The organisers, who want favourable publicity, win; the journalists win; only the Ghanaian public loses.

Such corruption of the media is rife in many parts of the developing world. But before we get too snooty, the truth - if you can prise it out of a journalist - is that journalism in Britain is just as corrupt. We are just more subtle.

Print journalism is now the most corrupt realm of public life in Britain. And because we complain about corruption in other realms the loudest, we are also the most hypocritical. Every other sphere - including parliament, the political parties, the civil service, police, local government, regulators and charities - has cleaned up its act, established rules of disclosure, and disciplined those who fall short. Even the BBC has strict rules.

In contrast, the print media, whose aggressive stance against corruption or dishonesty in other sectors has been the driving force for keeping standards up, have done virtually nothing to improve their own act. Corruption is not even mentioned in the Press Complaints Commission code of conduct.

It is axiomatic in public life that you should not make financial or other gain from those who have dealings with you in a professional capacity. Even if there is no corruption directly involved - as the media keep telling the Labour Party over the Richard Desmond affair - the appearance of corruption should be avoided.

However, journalists and their newspapers often get huge indirect financial and other benefits from those they are reporting on. The industry that demands the scalps of lying ministers lies to its own readers by making up stories and quotes - not just in the tabloids and the diary sections, but in the news sections of the broadsheets, too. Standards in journalism are so low that what would be a disciplinary offence anywhere else is seen as a normal perk of the job. Anything that journalists complain about others doing, they almost certainly routinely do themselves. But because we are all in on it and benefit from it, we keep quiet about it with a sneaky smugness.

I am not being holier than thou about this - I have been as guilty as any, but nor have my employers been worse than others. And you will have to forgive me for a certain evasiveness - I work in Fleet Street, and hope to do so for decades to come. It's just that I would prefer to work in an industry that can claim the moral high ground, rather than be a champion of brazen hypocrisy.

It need not be like this. American journalism is almost piously ethical, with journalists strictly avoiding any actual or potential conflict of interest. They cannot even accept a free lunch because it might compromise their integrity.

Direct corruption - as in the case of Roger Scruton, who admitted to being funded by a tobacco company to place flattering stories - is rare in British journalism. Far more common is the indirect corruption of free trips, tickets to sports events, and awards.

The most corrupt of all is travel journalism, which survives on the free holidays from those it reports on. Only the Independent has made serious attempts to avoid this. On a recent free holiday to Africa with my partner, a policeman (who had had to pay for his holiday) asked how I could pretend to write objectively about a company that was showering such a gift on me. "I would be sacked if I was doing what you were doing," he said.

The result is that travel sections all too often exaggerate the good points of holidays and play down the bad ones, and rarely contain strong criticism of individual tour operators or travel companies. Newspapers ambiguously say that a writer "travelled with" such a company, rather than admit that the company supplied the trip for free.

Business journalism - particularly personal finance - is almost as corrupt. Giant corporations, financial institutions and PR companies target millions of pounds from marketing budgets at a few dozen business journalists, and almost anything goes. Some journalists boast of lifestyles that are little more than perpetual junkets - bribes - from those whose news they report.

British Airways is flying out the cream of British business journalists to Japan for the World Cup, making it a good time for the company to sneak out a bad business story. One of those who accepted, Frank Kane, the business editor of the Observer, justified his decision by saying that it was a chance to check the quality of in-flight service on BA routes. Last time round, Mastercard and RBS Advanta sent journalists to France to watch matches. BT takes journalists to the rugby at Twickenham.

Whatever the event, from Ascot and Wimbledon to the latest performance by Madonna or the ENO, the business sections are awash with free tickets. For the more desirable events, desperate journalists end up making obsequious phone calls to press officers with whom they are meant to be hardnosed.

Other companies - including public concerns such as the Post Office - buy up expensive tables at the UK Press Gazette's awards dinner, that social highlight for newspapers, and scatter tickets to the journalists who report on them. One business editor insists that companies buy "our attention, not our approval". But if that is true, why not declare openly at the end of the article that it is based on a trip paid for by the company that is being reported on? Don't the readers deserve to know? Companies spend millions on journalists because it is cheaper than advertising at buffing up their public image. They know that when they hand out the gold-dust tickets, bad stories about them are unlikely to appear. And they expect things in return. One property group took me to a champagne dinner performance of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Albert Hall, and for weeks afterwards left messages asking me when a self-serving story about the firm was going to appear (it didn't).

Companies also give products to journalists. Those who write about the mobile phone industry need never buy their own phone. One motoring correspondent boasted to me that he did not own a car but had had to have a three-door garage built to house all the cars he has on long-term loan from various motor companies. The cars were the flashy models rather than the cheaper ones that his readers would prefer him to do long-term tests on.

The only thing worse than the corruption is the hypocrisy. The journalists and newspapers that receive these benefits are the same ones that hounded the Lottery regulator Peter Davis out of his job for the sin of accepting hospitality from the Lottery shareholder GTech. They pursued the International Olympic Committee for similar acts. Newspapers with junket-addicted travel sections and journalists lambasted Tony Blair on learning that he took a free holiday from the Egyptian government last winter.

Major companies also try to buy journalists by sponsoring career-enhancing awards. Will the winner of Big Building Society Personal Finance Award want to unveil a scandal about the building society? Will the winner of Pharmaceutical Giant Award for science writing want to lift the lid on the corporation's drugs? Governments, public bodies and trade associations are also in on the game. Governments such as those of Taiwan and Japan, which feel in need of favourable world understanding, openly give the red-carpet treatment to journalists from these shores.

The Japanese government paid for me to go to Japan to write a piece about why the Japanese believe they should be allowed to eat whales, something I agreed to do on only the clear understanding that I would declare openly, in the article, that the trip had been paid for by Japan. Such declarations are usually never made.

The UK government does not try to buy up journalists, but it does try to co-opt them. One economics editor, Ed Crooks of the Financial Times, joined the government's sustainable development task force. When Martin Bright worked as the Observer's education correspondent, he was offered a CV-enhancing post on an education task force but turned it down because of the conflict of interest.

Political journalism is less corrupted by money, but more corrupted by power. Some political journalists are politically active, often on the quiet, so you only discover their loyalties when they stand for parliament. Some write and spin stories they know to be untrue because it suits their patrons.

The apogee of the political conflict of interest is found in our two weekly political magazines, one of which is edited by a Tory MP and the other of which is owned by a Labour MP.

Then there is not so much corruption, but simple dishonesty. Not only the tabloids and diary sections make up stories and quotes; so do some broadsheets. One broadsheet plumbed such depths that BBC editors told their staff never to waste time trying to follow up its stories. Yet these papers joined the pack in hounding Stephen Byers to his resignation last month for doing nothing worse than they themselves do.

While heads roll for modest levels of corruption in every other sphere of public life, I have never known a journalist even to get a warning. Most only have to live up to their own personal integrity. The trouble is that we work in an industry in which corruption has come to seem normal. Unfortunately, journalists, like doctors before them, have simply been going unchallenged. The media forced doctors to agree that they should do nothing behind closed doors for which they are not prepared to stand up in public. Now, journalists should live by the same rules that they insist others live by.

Journalists are the nation's anti-corruption squad, but there is no one to investigate our own corruption. All the public can rely on is our integrity and sense of fair play. They are being let down.

Anthony Browne is between jobs at two national newspapers