Why journos SHOULD accept freebies

There has been much chatter, and Twitter, about the payment and potential corruption of critical journalism recently. George Monbiot on 29 Sept 2011, performed an ethical striptease that has shaken the journo tree to its roots, and I can assure you he did not leave his hat on. Hacks’ public reputations as bad as derivatives traders, or even MPs?

Tim Atkin and Jamie Goode have led reasoned arguments on behalf of wine writers, whilst Jim Budd is ethically fuming, if not yet fully unclothed.

I don’t consider myself a journalist since my bills are paid courtesy of a “day” job in software, but I do post my views on a public website and pass comment on wine, food and the like. So I thought I better put my size tens into the debate and share my thoughts.

Firstly in the interests of my own personal disclosure, this is dead simple. I make no money out of Confessions of a Wino. I accept no advertising. Running the site costs me less than £100 per year. I do get sent wine samples and invited to wine tastings although it is clear from my posts where this is the case. I would estimate that I buy over 90% of the wine I review, and I have paid for my meal in every restaurant I have ever written about.

But enough about me. Wider and more professional journalism is really what is on trial. The relationship between reader and writer has changed since the internet became ubiquitous. Nobody wants to pay for content any more. Once it was possible to find information about, say, fine wines, only by paying an expensive subscription to some glossy magazine or other. Nowadays, you can follow the winemaker on Twitter, and read about his wines from every Tom, Dick and Alastair online, and for free.

Where does this leave the poor journo who cannot afford to write about an expensive subject like wine, because their customer, the media, cannot afford to pay their expenses?

Advertising and independent journalism have always been uncomfortable bedfellows, and since Moses was a lad, there has been the suspicion (and indeed evidence) of backhanders, bribes and other means of influencing the opinion whose readers believed was uncompromised. But, whilst the internet has made it harder to make money out of “straight” journalism, equally it has made it more difficult to hide illicit practices. If Wikileaks doesn’t get you, The Daily Mail will.

So, if the internet has spannered traditional media, where does journalism go from here? As a reader, I still value expert opinion and good writing. Equally I do not have unlimited resources so I need to choose wisely where I spend my money and time, so I am happy to receive advice.

The idea of free samples is age old, not just for the press, but for the general public. Getting people to try your product is a fundamental principle of business – ask any marketing director. It is not bribery. You put your samples out and if the product is good, and people perceive it as fairly priced, you have a recipe for success. As if proof were needed of the importance of this, a subset of marketing, the PR industry, has made a fortune out of enhancing the chances of Joe Public trying products by enticing mainstream or specialist thought leaders to give them oxygen. Imagine how many BMWs Jeremy Clarkson has driven. Does this really influence him to write more positively about the brand? I am sure he has driven as many Vauxhalls by way of free samples, and look at his views on them. It is hard to imagine that a wine journalist can possibly have their opinion “bought” with a glass, or even a bottle of wine.

Problems arise when payments are made, or excessive gifts or hospitality are offered that are not clearly disclosed. In wine terms, reviewing a bottle of Tesco’s latest Pinot Grigio that was received as a sample, or tasted at a press event, is not worth disclosing in my opinion. Attending a gala dinner hosted by a leading wine merchant with vertical tastings of Château Latour going back to 1855 warrants a mention. But I still want the journalists that I read to attend such an event so I can enjoy it vicariously. Providing I know who paid.

You do not have to look very far to find blogs that are merely records of freebies that the author has solicited to fulfil their lifestyle aspiration. I don’t object to that as long as I know. Clearly any opinion in the article has to be taken with a pinch of salt, but the experience can nonetheless be described by the writer and appreciated by the reader.

Furthermore, whilst it is possible for a critic to evaluate the taste, quality, style, beauty, ambience, service and report the cost of something, I believe that it is wrong of reviewers and writers to comment on value unless they have felt the pain in their personal wallets. This includes restaurant critics who expense their meals to their employers.

The internet has offered us aggregated opinion. Reading more than one report of an event, a wine, a play, a restaurant is so easy my dead gran (RIP) could do it. This offers us a defence against undue influence. Easily spotted are those who regularly post sunny sentiment against the tide.

I think a bigger threat to ethics in the media is presented by the owners and how they are influenced, notably by advertisers and by politicians (where troublesome influence flows in both directions), and how this turns into editorial guidance, or the power to simply close a title down to protect the rest of the empire. But these are large, juicy worms that will not be escaping from today’s can.

At journalist level, if we want our press to remain free, in all senses of the word, the new model has to be based on a new level of trust. As long as we know how our media content is influenced and paid for, as a reader I feel mature enough and intelligent enough to make a judgement on whether I trust the opinions offered. The unpalatable alternative is that average people will be priced out of reading as the “broadsheet” media retreats to an elite, albeit more independent, niche where quality journos go largely unread.

5 Responses to “Why journos SHOULD accept freebies”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Good points, well put.

    Personally I wouldn’t have a blog without the press trips, the tasting and dinner invites, the restaurant review opportunities or the free samples. I just would not be able to afford any of it. I hope my reviews come across as honest (whether it was a producer paid for trip, regional wine board paid or free restaurant meal) those bloggers who are not similarly honest and truthful (whether openly transparent or not) will not garner much of a following and thus not be of interest to the PR people, trip organisers or producers…

    I should also mention that I do have advertising on Spittoon; it brings in enough to keep the site alive, but these are google adverts where I have no say in what appears.

  2. Richard Says:

    You rather gloss over why all freebies should not be disclosed. Saying ‘not worth disclosing’ isn’t sufficient. Why not?

  3. Alastair Bathgate Says:

    Fair point, Richard. I think there is a judgement required on scale. I have been to press tastings where I have tasted 50 wines. One stands out on the day and I write about it positively. Should I disclose to my readers that the mouthful that landed in the spittoon was a “free sample”? At a slightly higher level, if an expensive bottle (say £20) is received as a sample that might be worth declaring specifically. Most journos get so many samples, that I think it is fair to assume that any wine they write about was sent FOC, unless they claim it is so good they will buy it themselves (or did).
    My reviews start from the opposite presumption, however, and I agree with your sentiment.

  4. Steve Slatcher Says:

    For me the major concern is not so much the positive reviews – I can draw my own conclusions from how I suspect the wine was obtained. My concern is rather for the reviews that never get written. What do we conclude from them? I can think of 3 reasons why a wine does not get reviewed: (most cynically) that wine is rubbish but the critic wants the importer to continue to send samples; (morally neutral but equally worrying) the producer is not well known enough and does not have the resources to send out samples or to come high on the critics radar; (well-intended but incorectly IMO) the critics think we are not interested in knowing which wines to avoid.

  5. Charles Saunders Says:

    Damned fined piece of writing, the cheque is in the post.

Leave a Reply