There are a few things property journalists shut up about – what they earn, how they rely on PRs for information, and whether a very few of their peers are corrupt.
I’ll leave pay and PRs to another day. But let’s look at property payola.
It’s a fact that property can be a sleazy business and a few journalists (really, just a very few) write favourable stories in return for free holidays or cut-price services from agents. I first spotted this about seven years ago; it died out but now I think it’s back, probably because commissions are less plentiful and less well-paid than before the downturn.
Editors don’t necessarily know. They rely on freelances because they themselves are tied to the office; they assume people and properties quoted are selected for their appropriateness. On a few occasions, I believe, that is not the case.
I’ve twice been offered ‘money for mentions’. Once was by a PR for a posh estate agent seeking publicity for a Cotswolds development (she named one of my peers who allegedly regularly accepted money); the other occasion was when the head of a small PR agency asked me to mention a property data company in stories from time to time in return for £400 a month. (Honestly, how cheap do they think I am?) On another occasion I was offered not money, but a fortnight’s free holiday.
As corruption goes this is pretty small fry but it’s still wrong, if using that word doesn’t make me appear too pompous. In recent weeks I reckon we’ve had a few over-enthusiastic stories of glorious homes and companies, so the problem may be back.
There’s hypocrisy here of course. I accept lunch or a Christmas bottle or even a once-in-a-blue-moon trip to Wimbledon from agents or developers. We at least discuss a story or two at that time. Does that make me corrupt?
I’d say not, and can point to plenty of occasions when I’ve journalistically bitten the hand that has (literally) fed me. But I can see how others might disagree.
Yet whatever your view, my freebie risotto is surely a quantum leap from a gratis fortnight in the sun in return for a developer getting uncritical column inches?
Like the broader property industry, journalists have had a tough time. Freelance payments have been cut 30%, property supplements have contracted or closed and there’s the ever-present threat of internet ‘reader generated content’ which is cheaper than a journalist’s copy could ever be. But that shouldn’t mean journalists should give in to temptation when writing supposedly-objective stories.
As for readers, they should look closely at what is written and at writers’ links with those quoted. Those journalists doing their jobs properly have nothing to fear. ‘Nuff said.
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