Freebies are not always what they seem. Junket etiquette is a complicated thing. The ligger does not always lig lightly. Free dinners and trips can have a price attached.
Life is expensive, especially for those who live and work in London so it’s a godsend that there are so many freebies knocking about. A well-dressed, washed tramp (which is probably a non-sequitur) could live well ligging from gallery opening to restaurant launch most nights of the week, glugging wines, champagne and canapés.
But said tramp might find it harder holidaying for free. They usually check your identity before you arrive for a press trip.
Many a journalist makes his or her way through life barely having to dig deep into their pockets for a nice holiday. When in need of a skiing trip or nice week in Barbados, the most strenuous part of the trip is the journey over to the travel desk to see what junkets are up for grabs.
But freebies are not always what they seem. Junket etiquette is a complicated thing. The ligger does not always lig lightly. Free dinners and trips can have a price attached.
I know one PR man who has been around for years who gets on the phone and offers one the opportunity to go somewhere nice with ’no quid pro quo’. ‘I’m not asking you to write anything I just want you to go and check it out. Stay the weekend. Take the wife and kids.’
‘I really can’t promise you any coverage,’ I say, ‘but if you really want me to go, if you insist on me hooping it up in this posh hotel and racking up big bar and restaurant bills at their expense and offering no coverage in any magazine or paper I write for, then fine I’ll go.’
So off one pootles. Laps up the freebie, comes home and forgets about it.
Not long after, the PR man’s minion is on the phone asking when the five-page feature is appearing. No ‘quid pro quo’ having quickly become ‘do ut des’ (‘I give, so that you may give’, as you’ll well remember from your Latin lessons).
As someone who has spent well over a decade ligging, let me offer some tips.
You need to be very sure what is being offered and what is required in return. Some PRs believe that it is better you go to their restaurant and hotel enjoy yourself, then spread the word to your media friends but not write a sausage, than not go, not write anything and not tell anyone about it.
Others think that the mere attendance at some dreary event merits cover lines. So when you’re offered two days at Cowes with every bell and whistle dripping in champagne or dinner cooked by Alain Ducasse in the company of Europe’s greatest chefs (both were yesterday), ask what they want in return and if need be promise nothing and put the promise in writing.
When you are offered a weekend away at some poncey hotel make sure breakfast is included and dinner and wine with dinner. Not once have I, having modestly chosen from the wine list, then been stung for it on departure. Which is hideously embarrassing. Scrambling to scarper from a hotel in the New Forest I was chased to the car by a woman from reception asking me to pay for my newspaper.
It makes you feel like that MP who put in a claim for his Remembrance Sunday collection offering.
I was once lunching a contact at a new restaurant in the City. I had to leave early but reassured him that the bill was on the house. He phoned me later slightly cross that he’d been asked to pay, interested at how, he reckoned, I’d slunk out of buying him the promised lunch.
Just the other week I was offered dinner by a PR friend at some smart joint in South Kensington. Knowing I was on a freebie and not wanting to take the mickey, when the sommelier asked which wine we wanted I left it to him.
As we left they landed me with a £112 bill. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘But dinner was complimentary.’
‘It was sir,’ they replied. ‘But not the wine.’ Which was a new trap in the restaurant ligging game I had yet come across.
I paid the bill to avoid a scene but complained to the PR the next day. I heard nothing and then when inquiring a week later was told that the reason they had charged me for the wine was as a penalty for how I’d spoken to a waiter.
‘Tell the sommelier to pour the xxxxxxx desert wine,’ I was alleged to have said. Which was pure invention, corroborated by my two dinner guests.
I’ve since settled the dispute by banning the PR’s clients from gaining publication through the organ I edit ‘til I get my money back.
The rule here being remind the restaurant when you get there that dinner is what we call in the trade a comp (and that includes wine).
Although it does make you feel awkward saying to the manager on arrival. ‘This meal is free, right?’
But after a decade at this, and still getting into squirmingly embarrassing scrapes you learn to lig openly, brazenly and shamelessly. For not to lies the way of peril and false promise.