The relationship between consumer journalists and the industries
they cover is bound to be fraught - if the media side is doing its
We’ve all bought computers which crashed, found helplines unanswered,
and endured delayed holiday flights. But should communications be
allowed to break down, to the point of open warfare?
The tricky issue of how PROs deal with critical journalists and the
publications and programmes (such as Watchdog) they represent was nicely
underscored by a tirade in the Mail on Sunday last weekend. Frank
Barrett, the seasoned travel editor, told his readers to ’look in vain
on these pages’ for a report on the annual convention of the Association
of British Travel Agents (ABTA) taking place in Queensland, Australia,
ABTA, he wrote, ’has declined to invite me after having done so for the
past 22 years. The decision is ABTA’s way of showing its unhappiness
with the critical views of the travel industry expressed here.’ The
subtext is that Barrett has branched out into broadcasting, with niches
on ’infotainment’ programmes like ITV’s Holidays from Hell.
At the serious end, Barrett has been ahead of the game, voicing
scepticism about the future of package holidays in a static market of
cut-throat margins, where operators are consolidating, yet customers’
expectations are continually rising.
’If ABTA thinks that by banning me it can expect more favourable
coverage, it is sadly deluded,’ added Barrett. ’The critical views are
generally your opinions, sent by letter, fax and e-mail ... rest
assured, we shall not be gagged.’
Is ABTA right to take a leaf out of Alastair Campbell’s book and act
tough with a journalist who displeases? Well, Keith Betton, ABTA head of
corporate affairs, remains on the attack: Barrett attended last year’s
convention with his family, stayed for only half the proceedings, and
did not seem to take it seriously, he says.
The problem, for tour operators, is that the Mail on Sunday, the
dominant middle-market Sunday player, has some six million readers, many
well-heeled and keen on travel. Barrett controls the travel section:
last Sunday, the paper also carried a spread on how to go to Majorca,
prime package territory, in the footsteps of Michael Douglas and
Catherine Zeta Jones.
In an ideal world, travel editors and travel companies should aspire to
a workable relationship. Yet there is value in fighting back.
The Broadcasting Standards Commission’s dispassionate annual report out
this week refers specifically to consumer programmes, saying a
significant number of complaints have been upheld against Watchdog. In
the past year, Airtours has even taken the unprecedented step of
advertising an adjudication in its favour. The next step must be
constructive, engaged debate.