What price ‘freebies’?

A man covertly giving someone else cash

Not how gardening journalism works

And now for something a bit precarious, professionally speaking –  a little bit out on a limb:

A reader of my Telegraph page wrote to me about my lawnmower, a Bosch  lithium-ion cordless model that  I have been using for about four years and about which I cannot speak too highly.

Referring to it recently on my page, I mentioned the liberating effect that lightweight battery tools have on gardeners.

I bought my first lithium-ion battery gadget five years ago –  a hedge trimmer that is still going strong:  no more wrestling with a filthy stinking heavy noisy petrol monster, nor the alternative – fiddling with infuriating and seemingly inevitable cord-splicing every time I cut my hedges.  I have been an Battery Evangelist ever since.

Bosch happen to be the market leaders in this particular field, so both mower and hedge trimmer are made by them. The reader, wanting to get a bit more low-down from me,  wanted to know if I had been given my mower or whether it was on loan. It obviously never occurred to him that it was just ‘my mower’.

It would seem that now that more and more writing in newspapers and magazines is pretty much ‘advertorial’,  the opinions and judgement of writers of columns like mine that occasionally mention gardening products and tools, and indeed the feature I did for a couple of years for the English Garden Magazine, may appear to the reading public to be very, very suspect.

In fact, in the time I was the writer of the tool-testing feature for the English Garden, I had a remarkably free hand.  I asked not to be told the price of the goods I was testing,  so that I wouldn’t know which were the posh and expensive ones (although it was often obvious, of course), and it was left completely up to me to decide which was my ‘favourite’.  It was, all in all, a bit of a dream job.

On only one occasion since then have I been offered a significant ‘inducement in-kind’ – in the form of a discount on a product in return, presumably, for a big, glowing ‘mention’ in the feature.  Nothing was specifically said about it, but the implication was clear.  In the event, the item did get its mention, but even with the discount on offer the item was still extraordinarily expensive and – even if I had been tempted to ‘glow’ in print –  I couldn’t possibly have afforded it. (The fact that garden writers earn a diminishing pittance for their work is another matter entirely, and one that I won’t air here).

So how do we deal with all this?    I admit I don’t really know how other writers carry on, but certainly for lesser fry like me there aren’t many ‘freebies’ kicking around these days anyway.  When I need a major item for the garden I ask for – and generally receive – a trade discount.  I am, however loosely it may be perceived, ‘in the trade’ after all.  When I am sent something to ‘try out’, I am generally happy to do so.  But only if I really like the product or gadget after using it and it is appropriate to write about it in the context of Thorny Problems (or whatever else I write, or when I am lecturing),  will I personally recommend it to other gardeners. Very occasionally I take the opportunity in print to suggest improvements or modifications to products or packaging, and I like to think that in one instance at least,  my comments have been influential.

The other side of the coin is that if I consider the item I am offered or sent unsolicited to be really ghastly and useless (and this happens quite often, believe me), I will not slag it off.  I just keep absolutely stum.  And eventually I might slip it into a Horticultural Society raffle or something… (oops!)

Anyway, in my view this is a reasonable deal, and one which keeps my integrity intact in a world of journalism that is increasingly dominated – you could say ‘tainted’ –  by marketing.   And I think, judging from my mail and from the general vibes I get, that the majority of my readers understand that this is where, somewhat naively perhaps,  I stand.

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2 Responses to What price ‘freebies’?

  1. Judy_C says:

    Well, one obvious thing to do is buy Phillips and Rix’s book, a fantastic read easily available new and second-hand.

    And, when you’ve done that: why not join an anti-capitalist march. Big business is destroying our cultural heritage. So many village stores have closed, pubs are going out of business every day, churches stand deserted. Community life has a value.

    Brothers and sisters unite.

    Hellen, as a Telegraph writer (and reader, eh?) yourself I’m sure you agree with me. Capitalism must be stopped: and how better than with a wall of lovely flowers. Hellen, you are our General: command and we will follow:

    On. On, On, On to the Beach, to the Beach

    And don’t forget, Sisters, wrap up warm – this chill wind we’ve had recently if it gets up the gusset can cause no end of coughs and sneezes.

  2. Nick Warren says:

    Hi Helen,

    I’ve had similar experiences over the past 15 years – often being offered corporate jollies in return for funnelling clients towards certain services (I am the MD of web development company in my other life).

    I never did go on the though, or get a referral fee from anyone. It’s true I have recommended plenty of people over the years, but always because of their quality of their service – never because of an inducement.

    I think your position is reasonable, but the really important thing is that you state it.

    The only thing I might modify in your situation is the policy on telling us about poor products. It’s seems entirely reasonable to me that companies sending you products should also know where they stand – and that you’ll review them honestly.

    It might stop you getting sent a load of rubbish in any case.

    Thanks for the blog, Nick

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