John Dale is the former editor of women's magazine Take-a-Break and an ex-reporter at the Daily Mail and The Observer. Here he takes aim at journalism's 'freebie culture' a 'kind of corruption so embedded that we cannot see it for what it is: behaviour widespread enough to shame a Pakistani cricketer moonlighting for FIFA'. (This article first appeared in the October 2011 edition of Press Gazette's monthly magazine. To subscribe to our new Press Gazette – Journalism Quarterly, click here.)
Q: Hello, is that the Asda press office? I’m calling from Press Gazette. How many journalists attended your George press fair?
Asda: Well over a hundred.
Q: Did you give them all a £30 voucher?
Asda: (Pause) Do you attend press shows yourself, John? At press shows, you offer a bit of a gift bag. We give a voucher because we like journalists to go into a store and see what we offer.
Q: Could I use the £30 voucher for my Asda groceries?
Asda: (longer pause) Yes.
Q: So you might as well give the journalists £30 cash?
Asda: (Even longer pause) Er, got to go. Put your questions down in an email please…
I’ve seen more outstretched hands than in an Oxfam poster.
The sad thing is they come with painted fingernails rather than skeletal arms and are not attached to hungry children but to some of my professional colleagues.
Gimme an iPad. Gimme a holiday. Lend me a flash motor. Buy me a Michelin meal. Pay for my groceries. Gimme, gimme, gimme.
For many, the not-so-secret Code of Practice.
As the journalists streamed into an Asda fashion preview, a light breeze blew outside, perhaps picking up the stench of perfumed putrefaction and wafting it from Covent Garden to The Strand.
There, at the High Court, it might have caught in the throat of Lord Leveson who was sitting down to inquire into press corruption.
If he got a whiff, it should have reminded him to go back to basics, to the point where it all begins.
Sometimes sleaze wears lipstick, carries a £500 handbag, gets £100 haircuts, dines at Michelin restaurants and goes cruising in the West Indies.
We, the press, love to act as moral arbiter, yet our practices are institutionally suspect.
Don’t particularly blame Asda. They’re innocent. They simply tune into the expectations of some journalists, that they should be rewarded merely for turning up and doing a nice, cushy number.
Refreshments? A goody bag? Oh, and here’s your giftcard. Enjoy, darling!
Would anyone give £30 vouchers to police officers? Or MPs? And if they did, guess who’d lead the lynch mobs.
Yes, journalists. This kind of corruption is so embedded that we cannot see it for what it is: behaviour widespread enough to shame a Pakistani cricketer moonlighting for FIFA. Freebies and phone-hacking. They are all on the same continuum of moral corrosion.
There are fine, brave journalists who do say no and they deserve medals as big as dustbin lids. To them, the job is not about filling their boots.
It’s about integrity and they are the unrecognised heroes, hacks who dare to hold out, even at the cost of their careers.
But for many, avarice trumps judgement.
With a quick adjournment, Lord Leveson could have strolled down The Strand and witnessed the grasping and the greed, this lack of journalistic self-respect.
“To be honest,” one writer murmured to me afterwards, “a thirty quid voucher, it was less than I expected. Ah well, mustn’t complain. Do for the weekend groceries”.
Ask around about freebies and some people sound like finalists reeling off prizes at the end of The Generation Game.
Diamond rings. Diamond pendants. Dream holidays. Cruises. Laptops. iPads. iPods. E-readers. Michelin dining. Bespoke suits. Designer clothes. Handbags.
Shoes. Furniture. Home decorating. Car loans. Mayfair hairdos. Spa weekends. Concerts.
Movies. Theatre. Football at Wembley. Rugby at Twickenham. Tennis at Wimbledon. Cricket at The Oval. Racing at Ascot. All with enough food, wine and flattery to remind you you’re absolutely fab.
'Some journalists’ greed is legendary'
“I was at a lunch recently,” said one writer, “and had the misfortune to sit at a table of 20-somethings from the glossies, probably all on very low salaries, and every girl spent the dinner name-dropping, which spa was best, New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco?
“When I’d lifted my head out of my plate where it had sunk through sheer boredom, I realised the girls were just totally spoilt because they get SO much.
“I’ve heard lots of ‘don’t you know who I am?’ stories from these posh trips when someone doesn’t get as good a room as someone else. It amuses me that they probably fly easyJet when they go on holiday themselves.”
Some journalists’ greed is as legendary as their paid-for lunches.
One editor used her own house for her home features, inviting retailers to show how they could refurbish it.
They duly complied. Room by room, it was done up for free or with major discounts. She was not the first.
Another merely hinted at a need for a new wardrobe and was whisked to an Oxford Street store.
There were so many bags, they needed another cab for the return journey.
How do I know? First-hand, I’m afraid. As an editor for 20 years (of women’s weekly Take a Break), I was an occasional beneficiary.
I took a cruise and I visited Florida but at least I wrote lengthy reviews. That was in the 1990s.
Everything else I raffled to my staff. Not an excuse, but, with therapy, I have climbed back on the straight and narrow.
Journalists must first hold themselves to account'
You name it, we can get it. We’re not called the consumer press for nothing. Another editor ordered masses of furniture from a high-end shop using a personal 30 per cent discount and then didn’t pay for it anyway.
One writer told me: “I’ve had endless dinners at top restaurants, a diamond ring, a loose diamond solitaire, concerts at the 02, Ladies Day at Ascot, a trip to Paris with spending money, hair cuts and beauty treatments at pretty much any salon I want, a £100 washbag, top of the range juicer, lots of trips to spas and hotels. Don’t name me. I’d hate to lose out!”
Another explained: “We’ve been flown to New York and to Egypt, with PRs saying they want to ‘showcase’ a new product. Any excuse for wining and dining poolside in five-star hotels.”
There are motoring journalists who get a £500 hi-fi system fitted. And don’t even mention the loan of cars. Only recently beauty journalists were delighted to attend a product launch which had been thoughtfully located amidst the restaurants of Portofino on the Italian Riviera.
One trade magazine writer told me: “I had a news editor who used to get a free holiday and free car every summer in the south of France!”
Others might drop into a Formula 1 race by helicopter. No traffic jams for them.
Don’t let’s kid ourselves. What do we think PRs are there for? Why do they vastly outnumber journalists?
I think we know. In order to hold others to account, journalists must first hold themselves to account. Journalism should be bursting, not with villains and villainy, but with heroes and heroism.