A public relations nightmare for Mastercard and its PR firm yesterday, when a journalist exposed an email asking for tweets and coverage for the brand in return for a ticket to the Brit Awards.
Tim Walker, the diary editor of the Daily Telegraph, was issued with an astonishing nine conditions for his ticket at the 02 Arena last night, the PR helpfully suggesting a tweet that read: “Really excited to be heading down to @BRITAwards tonight with @MasterCardUK #PricelessSurprises”. Walker rightly refused. True, the toe-curling email from House PR, acting for Mastercard, did not relate to official media accreditation for the Brits but their own corporate hospitality.
Yet Walker has exposed a practice that goes on all the time and undermines the credibility of journalism. Hacks routinely get sent free stuff from PR firms pushing a brand, which on its own is acceptable – we wouldn’t be able to cover a particular field of journalism without it. The music industry pays for journalists to go on trips to the US to interview bands – Rihanna took an entire fleet of reporters with her on a flight last year.
There are the ubiquitous “freebies” in travel journalism. Invites to parties, book launches and awards ceremonies are bread and butter to diarists like Walker. Political journalism is not immune to book launches and parties, and of course we break bread with our subjects over lunch all the time (except it’s the newspapers, usually, who are paying). This is all par for the course, and as long as the free stuff is not accepted in exchange for a good write-up, it is ethical. But the line is crossed when suggestions are made for a tweet here, a favourable write-up there. The journalists who indulge in it are just as guilty as the PRs who demand it.