Media: No such thing as a free lunch

Should journalists accept hospitality from the likes of Al Fayed?

IT WAS showtime once again at court 13, the High Court's own Palace of Varieties. Mohamed Al Fayed and Desmond Browne, Neil Hamilton's QC, were settling into their by now familiar slapstick double act when the matter of Mohamed's friends came up. Flourishing a list of the great and the good who had sampled the tycoon's hospitality at the Ritz and Villa Windsor in Paris, Mr Browne mentioned journalists and newsreaders, including Sir Peregrine Worsthorne and his wife, Donald Trelford and Michael Buerk.

"All distinguished honourable journalists," Mr Fayed interjected.

Mr Browne pointed out that while journalists were publishing tales of Neil and Christine Hamilton's alleged gluttony at the Paris Ritz, members of the press had also accepted Mr Fayed's largesse. So how do they defend themselves?

Donald Trelford recalls that he had seen Mr Fayed on the recommendation of Tiny Rowland, who had just bought The Observer (this was before the two tycoons fell out over the purchase of Harrods). "We were investigating Mark Thatcher over allegations about arms contracts in Oman, and Tiny said Mohamed might be able to help," said Mr Trelford. "In fact he didn't know an awful lot, but he ended up by asking me to go to Paris because he wanted to have some books published about the Villa Windsor. It was the weekend of the England-France rugby match so there was an added incentive." Mr Trelford offered to pay, but Mr Fayed would not hear of it. "It didn't really matter to me, because The Observer would have paid, but he simply refused."

When the Fayed-Rowland war began, The Observer published the DTI inquiry, highly critical of Mr Fayed, and Fayed hit back. "Fayed's people spread some stories about my then wife running up a horrendous bill," said Mr Trelford. "It was all bollocks, but I think it eventually got into Private Eye."

Any regrets about accepting the invitation? "Only so far as what a shit the man turned out to be. But who was to know? I didn't write anything about my visit."

Sir Peregrine Worsthorne went to Paris several times as Mr Fayed's guest. The main purpose was to see the Villa Windsor; his wife, Lady Lucinda, was producing a BBC programme about the restoration Mr Fayed had carried out.

Sir Peregrine said: "At the time Fayed was not a controversial figure. This was before he fell out with the royal family, and he had done a good job restoring the Windsor home. Fayed wasn't then seeking to become a British citizen, nor was he seeking a political advantage. I didn't offer to pay for the Ritz - it would have been impossible for me to do so. I would have gone somewhere cheaper.

"Any rules, written or unwritten, about journalists accepting hospitality were not in existence - people did accept freebies. However, there was absolutely no question of him asking me to do something in return, and if he had done so, I would have refused. I asked Fayed to have dinner at the Garrick on several occasions to reciprocate the hospitality."

I too have benefited from Mr Fayed's largesse. It was not a stay at the Paris Ritz, nor even one of the Harrods Christmas hampers he appears to send out so liberally. But I was given bottle of champagne and a new edition of the book on the Villa Windsor by an employee of Mr Fayed with whom I have lunched at least a dozen times while covering his battles with Aitken and Hamilton. I paid for lunch each time. Where does this leave me?

"British journalists have always been rather relaxed about accepting hospitality, and there are very few who don't accept freebies in one form or another," says Ian Hargreaves, former editor of The Independent and The New Statesman and now professor of journalism at Cardiff University. "Although the purist position may be attractive, it has not proved realistic. Even something as simple as travel writers on The Independent not accepting freebies has eventually had to go due to various pressures.

"Journalists and their contacts do buy each other lunches, give presents etc, but that can be justified because information is being gained or exchanged. Going off on a holiday at someone else's expense would be far more difficult to justify. Every journalist has to ask himself or herself whether by accepting hospitality they begin to owe a redeemable favour that could be professionally embarrassing in the future."

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