Sir Paul Stephenson resigned as Scotland Yard Commissioner at the weekend after finding himself embroiled in the phone hacking scandal via his professional relationship with Neil Wallis, the former News of the World executive. And one of his big mistakes was accepting generous freebies – on this occasion a lengthy stay at Champneys Health spa for which Neil Wallis was a PR consultant.
So is it ever acceptable to accept freebies in the workplace? The television business is a particularly attractive area for freebies, especially factual magazine formats that often feature consumer products. Of course there are strict rules regarding product placement and undue prominence. No you can’t simply accept a year’s free supply of the world’s most expensive face cream and then agree to feature that cream on the screen as a result of the gift.
But what if you feature that cream on screen anyway in a beauty item and afterwards the PR company sends you a year’s supply in gratitude? Are you going to say no (if you’re male replace the world’s most expensive face cream with a year’s supply of the world’s most expensive beer!)?
No. (I hope).
Because a year’s supply is worth a lot and accepting that much is going to compromise you.
What if they simply send you one jar or one crate?
Maybe. What harm can it do?
Problem is as soon as you start accepting a ‘gift’ or a freebie you start to become compromised.
I’ve known people working for a well-known television series to not only accept such gifts but also call companies asking for a freebie or at least a discount. They know that if their PA calls and says the boss of a prominent TV show is looking to book a week at your health farm and wonders if there are any discounts – chances are they are going to get a very healthy discount if not a freebie.
Of course it’s tempting. I’ve been tempted for sure! But there is a line to be drawn and I reluctantly resisted asking anyone on my team to place such calls. That is not to say that there aren’t some generous perks to the job. A PR company offers you and your family places on a trip to Disneyland in Paris – all expenses paid. Yes please I’m in and very nice it was too. But this is a clear business deal. A PR company wants to impress you with the facilities at Disneyland. They hope the trip will inspire a feature idea you may eventually put on your show. They realise it may not. It is a transparent transaction with no pressure to deliver a result on screen.
And guess who is front of the queue when the beauty feature is over and the researcher says the PR company don’t need the products back again? Yes me! (Well actually I strive to be at the front but usually get beaten to it!). Sweeping up the props is one thing. Encouraging and accepting freebies is quite another.
There is no such thing as a free lunch – and certainly not in television (I have indigestion enough times to know that. Remind me to tell you about an enlightening lunch with Max Clifford some time…).
Temptation will be laid before you once you start work in television. Please don’t be tempted. You may get away with it for a while, maybe a long while. You may enjoy things you couldn’t otherwise afford but all too often there are strings attached. And when things go wrong as inevitably they do, and the investigations start, how will your actions look? To be a good producer, a valuable researcher you need, and must retain, your editorial independence.
And what use will those freebies be to you after you’ve been fired, I wonder…..?