Trust in the media is something we talk about on a grand scale. The Queen having a strop, for instance, or the uproar over You Say, We Pay on Richard and Judy.
We dissect the issue of trust when there’s been a major breach. But what of the minor ones?
I’ve long since got over the fact that some content is magazines is made up. Those sex stories in lads’ mags, for example, are not really sent in to the title. Rather, some delightfully imaginative staffer pens out some filthy fantasy.
It’s a white lie. A fib. I can deal with things like that, because they’re damn entertaining to read. Not a problem if they’re not true — I’m not relying on Nuts for tips in the bedroom, thanks.
I’m a lot more concerned about something I learned just this week. Over on a forum I frequent, a member posted a dilemma. A press trip to stay in a hotel (for reviewing purposes) was all set to go ahead. Booked it, packed it, etc. But then the magazine folded. The now angry hotel wants the journalist to pay in full anyway. The journalist explains:
“The hotel (a very swanky expensive one) offered three nights on a comp basis half board plus four nights on a media rate.
I’ve promised them I will try very hard to get something placed elsewhere BUT they have come back and said the hotel now wants to charge me the media rate for all seven nights and it’ll only be B&B.
So the stay will now cost me around £600-700 extra. Not good news.”
Not good news at all. But by far the most alarming part of those paragraphs were the words ‘media rate’.
One member shares my concern:
“I might be missing something here but how can you review a hotel when the hotel knows you’re reviewing it?”
To which comes this reply:
“I’d love to be able to review in secret but given my editors aren’t in a position to pay my expenses, the only way most of us can do travel pieces is by being hosted on press trips of one sort or another.”
Which is backed up further by another member:
“Straight hotel ‘reviews’ are pretty rare in travel journalism, really…they’re much more likely to be just mentioned in the fact box, with maybe a name check in the text for letting you stay for free. The nature of the assignments (ie. they would cost several thousand pounds to do) mean that in fact almost everything within travel journalism is paid for by someone other than the journalist.”
Thus rendering them useless, no? If hotel staff know you’re there to review the hotel, you can bet you’ll be getting preferential treatment. Quicker food, the best rooms, friendlier staff. In fact, I bet in the staff rooms they’ll have a list of which rooms have people paying ‘media rate’.
One member points out:
“I wonder how many negative reviews are written by journalists on freebies. It’s no wonder sites such as Tripadvisor are proving so useful.”
Quite. It goes back to a post made by former-Press-Gazette-now-PaidContent journalist Patrick Smith, who questioned the validity of film critics:
“A more extreme and amusing example of obscure film-blurbism Guy Ritchie’s not-awful-but-completely-bewildering Revolver (about gangsters, unsurprisingly). The film was universally panned by critics, yet huge billboards appeared around towns declaring it ”Brilliant…Guy Ritchie back to his best!”
Fair enough if that’s what you think, except that the line is from The Sun’s online film e-zine Film First which had bagged a WORLD EXCLUSIVE interview with the director, as The Guardian pointed out at the time. Private Eye established that the “brilliant!” part of the quote was from none other than The Sun’s Page 3 girl Ruth (she makes a brief appearance in the film).”
Are journalists really going to pan a hotel when they know that if they big it up, they’ll probably get another free trip again soon?
Perhaps more worrying is this scenario from another member:
“I only adored one of the hotels (one was fine but naff, and the other was fine but austere) they only used the one for the hotel I genuinely loved. I still got paid for all my work.”
So not only can we not fully trust motives behind hotel reviews, we also don’t get to see the ones that don’t get a favourable write up. Why is this? If it’s a high-profile hotel which turns out to be a complete stinker, isn’t the press in place to provide the service of warning us?
From when I was in New Zealand, I recall Jim Tucker telling me about how he went around Wellington reviewing restaurants. This wasn’t a press trip, and I’m certain Jim didn’t let them know he was there to review the food. His reviews never saw the light of day. Why? Because he dared to criticise.
We often call for high-profile journalists to declare their interests. In fact, a member of the same forum that I’ve been quoting from here has suggested we produce a national register documenting those interests. Great idea, I say. And, let’s not forget Robert Peston who is being ‘looked at’ because of some of his financial coverage. I believe we’ll find that Peston is merely a brilliant journalist and an astute financial genius, but we just don’t know how cosy he is to the people he reports on.
They’re more serious examples. But why not apply this practice to all journalists? If a hotel review has conducted with the hotel’s prior knowledge, then I think we, as readers, have a right to know this.