In defence of freebies

Observations: Junkets

In my line of work, I am often asked by PR executives how they can raise the profile of a particular athlete, sport or sponsor. My advice is simple: fly a load of hacks off to somewhere nice (preferably warm), wine and dine them for a couple of nights minimum and gift-wrap them a decent story.

So it was with wry amusement that I read the outraged media reaction to the publication of the civil service’s junket register. “High life for Sir Humphrey”, howled the Daily Mail, while the Guardian was particularly exercised over Brian Bender, the “greatest beneficiary of corporate largesse” in 2007. Bender had accepted 52 invitations from businesses and other organisations to dinners, lunches and events including Wimbledon and the Chelsea Flower Show.

At one a week on average, this is good going. But I’m willing to bet there are hacks out there who could easily surpass that. I readily admit that I will pass the time of day with anyone who wants to take me to the Test match and wine and dine me – making me the norm in Fleet Street and, I would suggest, the population as a whole.

Ah yes, you say, but civil servants work for us. They are charged with ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent effectively. Carousing with the private sector compromises their integrity. Yet the drive for business to work within the apparatus of the state has come from ministers both Tory and New Labour. The mandarins can hardly be blamed for hobnobbing with the private sector. You wouldn’t begrudge a guy, stuck in Whitehall churning out white paper after white paper for a minister who will have moved on in three months, a day at the races, would you?

The list was merely an easy stick with which the media could beat the public sector, whose jobs and pensions appear immune to recession. If the press was serious about Whitehall’s accommodation with corporations and consultants, it would examine the many private finance initiatives and IT projects that have proved so ineffectual. But this would require some proper journalistic inquiry into complex, and often boring, issues.

So let us spare a thought for civil servants such as John Kingman, the Treasury’s second permanent secretary. On 23 April 2007, he had lunch with the Daily Mail. This man deserves our sympathy. I’ll bet the first permanent secretary, if he’s anything like my boss, took one look at that invite and thought: definitely one for my deputy.

Nick Greenslade is deputy sports editor of the Sunday Times. His next junket is a trip to the Cheltenham Festival, courtesy of Guinness

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload