Having gently poked a bit of fun at Cycle Sport and Kenny Pryde’s revelations that they were given £300+ worth of riding gear at the recent
TeamSly TeamSky training camp, the issue of freebies seems to have become a bit of a thing. I’m not really sure why, though, because this is the way things have been done for decades. Indeed it should be noted that freebies these days are a bit shite compared to the glory days of the ’80s and ’90s.
The relationship between journalists and manufacturers/importers/teams/event organisers is a subtle one. Journalists want to maintain their journalistic integrity, and the manufacturer/team/etc wants to present their product in the best possible light. They don’t expect the journalists to be overtly swayed by free trips and little gifts, but they hope that the journalists will feel just that little bit more friendly towards the company (the Tweet from Cycle Sport is a perfect example of this).
If you’re launching a new bike/car/whatever it makes sense to do it somewhere nice where the sun shines, the photos will be lovely (often supplied by a photographer laid on by the company launching the product), and based around a nice hotel (the company execs, for whom these things are also a massive jolly, don’t want to stay in a crummy motel outside Slough). Flights and accommodation for the press is paid for by the company so as to guarantee maximum (and controlled) exposure.
Many new product launches happen in the winter, in preparation for the new season, so in order to find good weather companies are forced to launch their products in the Bahamas/California/Tuscany. This is nice for the company execs, nice for the PR team, and nice for the journalists. And it’s all tax-deductible, so it’s a win-win.
When The Independent newspaper launched in the UK they made the admirable decision to pay their way on these launches. They would attend, like everyone else, but they would pay for their own flights, accommodation, etc. They wanted visible transparency (is that even possible?), but it made no difference because the rest of us were writing what we thought anyway, regardless of the level of PR and freebies.
Having said that, journalists do like a freebie. At an annual Show in the south of France an Italian company used to hold a press conference every year to announce their financial results and talk about future plans. It was mostly in Italian, it went on for ever, and few of us bothered to attend. Then one year the company gave us all (about 20 of us) an iPod as we were leaving. Nice. The next year around 200 journalists turned up to the event. They were given a ballpoint pen each. Heh!
Of course a good journalist is not swayed by PR. Good PR should be there to do the job of letting the journalist know what he/she needs to know, occasionally covering up things they don’t want the journalist to know, but above all getting the message out to the buying public. At best, companies hope that good PR will take the edge off any criticisms the journalists might have. Of course most of us old hacks have no problem with biting the hand that feeds us, but there is a grey area where some journalists may tone down their criticism for fear of offending their hosts (or losing access). Those journalists should be reminded by their Editor that these companies are doing this stuff for sound commercial reasons, not so that they can be our bezzies.
So, in the spirit of the press’s recently-discovered transparency, and in defense of Cycle Sport’s journalists, I’d like to confess to the following:
Flown in a private jet to test a new car in Monte Carlo and put up in a five-star hotel for four days.
Given a brown envelope containing £500 in cash by an automotive company to cover my “expenses”.
Given $200 in cash to spend at a strip-club in Acapulco.
Given so many free bags that my house looks like the Left Luggage office at Heathrow.
Given a replica samurai sword on a press trip where all the journalists got massively shit-faced. Pissed journalists and swords do not make a good combination, and several people were treated in hospital (blood won’t clot if it’s 50% alcohol, apparently).
Given a bolt of Italian silk/wool mix cloth to make a suit from.
Spending an evening in Tokyo with a geisha paid for by an automotive company.
Given a gold-plated rocker cover for a large automotive engine.
Given countless personalised dictaphones and multitools.
I once went to California on a launch, stayed for more than a week, and came home with the same $10 note I went with. That, my friends, is dedication.
Week-long sojourns in the Caribbean (several times), Florida, Australia, South Africa, California, Japan and the middle-east, where I was forced to endure five-star luxury at no expense whatsoever.
In 25+ years doing this stuff I have amassed a huge quantity of free stuff, but it’s only since the advent of eBay that it has really become a proper income stream for me. Speaking personally, I feel quite able to remain completely objective while filling my cupboards with free stuff. But then I’m talented that way.
But not all journalists are prepared to play the game. I went on a trip to Mallorca a while back for the launch of a new product. The world’s press turned up, sat through the press conference, played with the product, asked appropriate questions, and filed their stories. Except for two American journalists who went straight from the airport to the shops in Palma, went nowhere near the product or the briefings, and just turned up in the evenings for the five-course meal. They filed positive stories, but weren’t invited to the next launch.
So do we need to be concerned about all this? Do we have to demand transparency? I’m not so sure. Aside from the occasional wide-eyed cub reporter who is unused corporate largesse and being showered with free tat, most of us are professional enough not to be overtly influenced by this stuff. A brown envelope with €50,000 in, however, might test the integrity of many of us. We live in hope of finding out. Meanwhile, if the Editors really want to make a statement, perhaps they should collect up all the freebies their staff get given and auction them for charity.
And now I really am the most hated man in cycling publishing!
Oh, and follow me on Twitter: @TranquilloTommy
But only if you want to.