Content marketing IS journalism

One of the best holidays I ever had cost just under £7,000 and I didn’t pay a penny. Our family of four were privileged enough to enjoy an idyllic holiday in Mauritius and no expense was spared by our obliging hosts and the PR company that had been the go-between.

Once I returned home, I wrote 1,200 words of fairly decent prose, full of colourful adjectives and praise for the hotel, the island and the company whose generosity we so eagerly accepted. And it appeared the next weekend in the newspaper I worked for, in precisely the same way dozens of similar travel ‘reviews’ appear every weekend, or every month in endless glossy magazines.

And that’s the deal. Journalists, or celebrities, get given a freebie, normally arranged by a public relations company, and then write up a favourable (they are always favourable) article that amounts to free advertising. In effect, a dubious financial transaction is made and everyone benefits. I got a free holiday, the company got free advertising, the PR firm looked good and the newspaper got a glamorous, free feature.

I don’t tell this story to humblebrag but to remind Peter Oborne of some journalistic normalities. Oborne recently resigned from the Daily Telegraph in an almighty huff because the paper’s owners, the Barclay brothers, borrowed £250m from HSBC and then tried to ensure coverage of the bank – embroiled in a damaging tax-evading scandal – was not aggressive in their newspapers and website.

In the same week that he released his coruscating resignation letter, two leading national newspaper sports writers – in football and cricket – wrote favourably about personalities with whom they helped ghostwrite their autobiography, without mentioning that they had financially benefited from those relationships, and continue to do so.

In the arts pages of another newspaper, a music writer whose partner is a senior publicist for a major music label – and who thus financially benefits from that high-powered job – wrote favourably about some pretty average albums that company had released.

A business journalist who enjoyed a recent lavish jolly in an Austrian ski resort thanks to the generosity of a particularly gregarious financial entrepreneur finally wrote his favourable profile of the man to whom he is – if not financially, then socially and professionally – indebted.

An editor I know elevated a very dull and meaningless story of a minor celebrity because his daughter works for the PR company who is promoting said celebrity. A member of his family financially benefits from his decisions.

Another editor used to drive a car that was given to him by a manufacturer indebted to the fact that he once plugged the company on the front page.

Fashion writers accept freebies and write shameless plugs about those freebies, book reviewers favourably review their friends’ latest works, food writers plug suppliers and restaurants with whom they have extraordinarily close relationships, and journalists who moonlight as unofficial writers for major sports teams to get some extra cash, avoid overtly criticising those clubs and their staff because they benefit financially from them.

It happens every day in every publication. The Telegraph Media Group accepting gargantuan amounts of advertising from a company whom it is subsequently reluctant to attack, is comparable to glossy magazines doing all they can to grab an exclusive shoot or interview by ensuring coverage before, during and after is suitably fawning towards all those involved.

Oborne is right that HSBC’s behaviour in helping clients avoid tax was shameful (if not illegal) but he’s wrong that the Telegraph’s response was just as shameful or immoral. If you’re a cynic like me, you might view it as not terribly unusual.

Murky financial arrangements which compromise journalists exist everywhere. They always have done, though admittedly those I outline above are pretty trivial in comparison to the Telegraph’s relationship with HSBC.

Perhaps self-righteous Oborne’s real problem is that he no longer likes the paper that so richly rewarded him and allowed him free VIP access to the kinds of events and people most people will never enjoy.

Maybe he needs a good holiday. If he does, I know a very accommodating travel editor…

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