The art of not getting thrown out
Sunday 18 October 1998
All right, so an entire country is an easier place in which to keep a low profile than a single restaurant. Presumably even AA Gill would be safe from recognition if he confined himself to street food in the outer reaches of Indo-China. If nobody knows who you are, nobody can throw you out.
On the other hand I have to admit that travel writing rarely seems to get that acerbic anyway, tending if anything towards the fluffy and cosy. Rip-off prices, bad weather and ugly scenery occasionally arise. But dashes of jingoism? Or rampant xenophobia? Not really. Perhaps if a travel writer went to Wales and referred to the locals as ugly trolls, as AA Gill did, then travel writers would start being thrown out of countries.
Why don't they? Perhaps it's because they are all sweet, inoffensive people. But could it not also be because food writers have newspaper expenses to pay for their meals while travel writers often accept freebies? In other words, that travel writers are too scared of having their freebie supply (and income) cut off to risk saying anything nasty about where they have just been?
No doubt this kind of croneyism plays a role somewhere. If travel writers are dependent on the hospitality of tour firms for the trips they take, then the tour firm which offers the most or the best hospitality (rather than the tour firm of most interest to readers) may have a better chance of coverage. And if you were a tour firm who wanted a journalist to review one of your holidays, no doubt you would prefer to take the friendly writer rather than the acerbic one. To some limited extent then, whether we like it or not, travel sections of newspapers rely on the friendly co- operation of tour firms.
And this finally brings me round to that old subject which needs referring to at least once a year. Namely, why on earth it is that the Independent on Sunday travel section agrees to accept hospitality from tour firms? The simple reason is cost. Whereas newspapers can afford to send journalists to local restaurants, they cannot afford (generally speaking) to send five or six writers on holiday each week.
And given this unfortunate constraint, one of my responsibilities as travel editor, is to ensure, as far as humanly possible, that the system is not abused by brilliantly persuasive PR agents or travel writers. Part of this includes disclosing where and when we have accepted hospitality, so nobody can accuse us of concealing hidden interests.
The trouble is that a fortnight spent (say) boating around the Seychelles might sound suspiciously like a holiday to some people, rather than a hard piece of work. And if someone out there is thinking of trying to seduce me with something like this, they would certainly be on the right track.
But don't forget that when we accept free holidays, we do not oblige ourselves to write nice things about them. In fact we do not oblige ourselves to write anything at all. We have a schedule of subjects that we wish to cover, and we cover them. In other words, we review trips if they are potentially interesting to readers, not as a matter of fulfilling any obligation to a tour firm. And that's about it.
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