It's a damp and depressing Monday night, two days after the England rugby side's heartbreaking defeat to South Africa in the World Cup Final, and I'm at the book launch for AA Gill's latest collection of writings, in Luciano, the St James's restaurant belonging to Marco Pierre White. Several of London medialand's bulkier egos swamp the bar. Anne Robinson is making her first public appearance since splitting from her husband Jon Penrose, while Gill works the room air-kissing his guests, both male and female.
Looking for an early night, I try to grab a quick word with Jeremy Clarkson in the hope of pocketing an easy "picture story" for Pandora, The Independent's diary column which I have worked on for the past 18 months. We've all seen Clarkson on the telly where he always seems good value, so I ask him about a newspaper poll which had recently named him the 4th wittiest British man in history. It's a fairly inoffensive half-volley of a question, and any without too much exertion on those supposed powers of wit, a nice response will help plug his good chum's new book in Wednesday's paper.
Clarkson, however, a journalist of some 30 years, decides to show his friend, the actor Ross Kemp, what he thinks of diarists like me. "What? What are you talking about?" he snorts furiously, glancing towards Kemp for some support. It seemed to me he was thinking: 'now watch me show you how you really do over a diarist'. "Forget about me," he says turning to me again. "What do you think about it?"
Crikey. Not the sort of response I was looking for. Perhaps, like me, he's still miffed about the rugby and that nuisance Irish ref (of course it was a try). But as I leave, I notice he's now repeating his new party trick, this time on a female freelancer younger than half his age and probably earning the sort of cash which would barely cover the annual fuel bills on the presenter's gas guzzling Ferrari. I'm beginning to think that Clarkson's friendly banter is only reserved for the celebrity guests on his TV show and possibly men who know lots about stuff like carburettors.
Such incidences, of course, are hardly uncommon for journalists who have to wile away their evenings pounding the party treadmill four nights of the week in search of nuggets worth reporting. It's not the most charming brush off I've received. Some figures, while frustratingly reticent in speaking to reporters, maintain an air of charm. Michael Portillo has a stock-in-trade response of "Nice to meet you, and goodbye." Surprisingly, Kate Moss is normally unfailingly polite. On one occasion, she even chirped playfully: "Sweetie, come on, you know I never talk to anyone." And for someone whose career longevity is down to her ability to keep her trap shut (almost as much as to her Bardot-esque good looks and impeccable dress sense), who was I to argue?
Clarkson's response is also by no means the rudest. David Walliams can be tiresome and I've had encounters with Kate Adie I'd rather forget. The lanky supermodel Jodie Kidd used to walk around with a friend half her size who would insist on speaking for her, rather like a ventriloquist's dummy (some use she was when the News of the World recently came knocking with an exposé). One time, I witnessed a former colleague approach Peter Mandelson at the press night of a high-profile art exhibition, only for her introduction to be met with a volley of abuse. But then those sorts of exchanges, while mildly awkward, actually make dynamite copy. After all, bombarding a young woman with four letter expletives is hardly becoming behaviour from a (then) senior Cabinet minister.
But the point is, why would people in the public eye turn up to such events when everybody knows it's going to be swarming with journalists? When diarists explain their jobs to friends, the two questions they're most usually asked are: "Isn't it tempting to just swan around the parties getting drunk?" And "Isn't it scary walking up to celebrities and having a chat?" The answer to both should be no. Essentially, we are both there to work.
The truth is the PRs, for all the hundreds of book launches/film premieres/drinks promotions which take place in the capital every month, bend over themselves to attract the glitziest guest list possible in order to gain maximum exposure for their event. A simple plug in the various diaries will often be enough to keep the client happy. As a result, while some who have just stepped out of the Big Brother house will be happy with an offer of an evening of free champagne and flashing light bulbs to secure their attendance, more A-list guests are offered juicier carrots, such as being lent a driver for the evening or possibly a lucrative goody bag. Some are even paid. Surely it's not too much to ask that they then repay a little of that generosity by putting out a bit.
Alex Field, head of PR for Moët Hennessy which is responsible for some of the biggest bashes around the summer and Christmas "season", says there are no formal agreements forged between organisers and guests, but there is an understanding.
"My view is that if a big brand puts on an event and a guest RSVPs to attend, they should very well expect that the press will also be there, and it's fair enough to expect that some of them are going to come up and ask them questions," he says.
However, he is also largely sympathetic towards those who feel they have been stung by reporters in the past. "I'm very against journalists who end up twisting things and taking quotes totally out of context, which does happen," he adds. "It's unfair and pretty indefensible."
Of course it happens. The explosion of titles in the celebrity magazine market means news pieces, even full-blown articles, rely solely on the most banal of quotes. But just how far should our sympathy stretch? While working at The Daily Telegraph, I attended a particularly swanky summer bash held by Krug champagne where I spotted the (then) prime minister's son Nicky Blair doing what all youngsters should be doing between studies; he was out on the lash. No-one else in the room seemed to have a clue who he was, so we spent most of our evening chatting and he happily divulged a scoop that he was off to spend his university holidays in Los Angeles doing work experience on Lisa Kudrow's latest sitcom. The next day, at the twelfth hour, the powers that be on the editorial floor pulled the story, citing Cherie's fondness for running to the PCC. The fact that her youngest son had happily rocked up at a party swarming with hacks was apparently by-the-by.
Whatever the argument, one thing is for certain. The appetite for throwing big promotional parties at vast expense shows no sign of letting up. Two weeks ago, Campari flew me and a whole host of European journalists out to Milan for a party.
The purpose of the bash was merely to celebrate the launch of their new promotional calendar, featuring the Hollywood star Eva Mendes. As long as that sort of thing continues, big names will be invited along, and the PRs will request hordes of reporters to follow them.Reuse content