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Should arts writers be entitled to freebies?

By Rob Boffard

It’s a pretty fundamental part of journalism not to accept gifts. The second you take that bottle of whiskey from the spokesperson, accept the invitation to that swanky junket in Thailand or even do something as innocuous as let a PR person buy you a drink after an interview, you’re done. You’re bent. They own you. Because even if you subsequently write the most well-balanced, fair and critical piece possible, there’ll always be a question of whether you would have done it differently had the gift not been accepted.

In fairness, most newspapers are pretty good about impressing on their reporters never to accept gifts of any sort, donating to charity any which make it past the filters. Some journalists take this further; George Monbiot raised eyebrows earlier this year when he wrote in The Guardian that he was declaring a register of his interests on his website.

Should Monbiot’s decision be a universal law? Maybe not — it’s pernickety and overzealous and perhaps just a little bit self-righteous — but the concept of not accepting gifts should remain standard procedure.

But there’s a problem: arts journalism. Because while there are plenty of excellent critics around — critics who would be dismayed if you accused them of being bent, or even slightly tilted — there’s no question that getting free stuff is absolutely one of the biggest perks of the job.

I write about hip-hop music for a living, and I get truly enormous amounts of swag through my letterbox. Most of these are CDs, which I’ll use to preview new artists and write reviews. Every so often, I’ll accept what’s commonly known as a plus-one (free entry for me and a friend) to a gig. Do I donate the CDs to charity after listening? Do I solemnly shake my head at the felicitations of a PR person to attend that star-studded show, insisting that she give it to someone else? Do I hell. That CD — especially if it’s the super-fly deluxe cardboard digipak edition — is going into my own personal collection. And best believe, I’m going to that gig. I even have a special edition Radiohead clear vinyl for In Rainbows, given out at a press event I attended in London (although if we’re going to be scrupulously accurate, it was in a sealed box and I didn’t know what it was until I opened it two days later, having forgotten about it. Still kept it, though).

So hands up, I accept gifts related to the stories I write. But before you rip me to shreds, think on this. I’m not alone. Every arts journalist I know gets sent stuff all the time — mostly in far greater quantities than I do. And then there are the legions of movie critics who haven’t paid to see a film in years, or the restaurant reviewers who eat for free even when they’re not on the job.

Of course, that’s really no excuse. I’m not bent — I have never backed down from ripping a bad album or performance to pieces, ever, whether or not a CD or gig ticket was given to me for free — but it is absolutely inarguable that I accept gifts. What, then, should I do about it?

There’s the argument that I need this stuff for my job. But I do not. A common practice among music labels is to provide an online stream of new albums for journalists, which shuts down after a length of time — you can hear the record without owning it. Bit tricky for gigs, restaurants and movies though …

Then there’s the argument that I’m not responsible for most of these gifts, simply because a very large chunk of them arrive unsolicited. This holds a little more water, because it’s actually impossible to donate early-release copies to charity (most contain watermarks identifying me as the owner, meaning that if someone got hold of the music and uploaded it online, I’d be in deep doo-doo). I can’t even recycle them, because specialist CD recycling costs the earth. But of course, that doesn’t remove the free gig passes and the like from the equation.

Finally, I could argue that because the pay is so abysmal, I’m entitled to a couple of extra perks to compensate for staying up until two in the morning writing this damn review. I’d dearly love to get this argument to work. But I might as well try convince The New Yorker to publish existential Zulu poetry.

It looks like the only option here is scorched earth: complete junking of any and all gifts received by arts journos after they’ve been used in a story, and no acceptance of any event entrance not paid for by the publication (although if you’re freelance — like me — convincing a newspaper or magazine to pay for anything is a bit like getting the Pope to invest in a chain of Hooters bars).

Do I think this scorched-earth-no-exceptions policy is possible? Do I even like it? No and no. Very much no. But short of spending hours I don’t have typing up a list of gifts I receive that will be read by precisely nobody, I can’t think of a solution. How about you?