THE GIFT THAT STOPS GIVING

~ Posted by Isabel Lloyd, December 18th 2012

There are many pluses to being an editor at Intelligent Life, but one element of the job that may at first glance look like a huge plus actually adds up to a minus. It’s the freebies.   

Dealing with freebies is an unavoidable and—bear with me a moment—tedious part of magazine life. Have a meeting with a brand, a manufacturer, a shop, and chances are a ribboned bag containing a candle, or a pair of cufflinks, or a box of chocolates will be pressed into your hand "to thank you for coming". You don’t have to go to meetings, either: every week emails pile up in the inbox offering paid-for trips to hotels, wineries, watch factories; in heady, pre-Lehmann days, I was once offered the opportunity to be flown by private jet from London to, I think, the Adirondacks to stay in a lakeside lodge that had once belonged to the Gettys. How, you ask, can being offered a cornucopia of free goodies this generous possibly be tedious? Because to say no to a gift looks ungrateful. But accept and benefit from it personally and your high-prized journalistic neutrality evaporates; anything you write in response becomes just so much hot air.  

Our big brother, The Economist, has hard-and-fast rules about this sort of thing, raffling off any valuable gifts its journalists receive, and only accepting hospitality under the most tightly restrictive of circumstances. We follow in its venerable footsteps, storing any freebies in a high-security location (the coat cupboard), then holding a Christmas table sale in the lobby downstairs, with the proceeds going to a charity voted for by our staff. So when a large and unusually expensive bottle of whisky landed on my desk last week—accompanied by a card explaining that the manufacturers wished to "gift it" (verbing alert!) to me for Christmas—I followed procedure. A quick email to the PR said thank you for the gift (noun, not verb), but as we weren’t allowed to accept, we’d pop it in the Christmas sale, with proceeds to go to Women for Women International, founded by Zainab Salbi, who featured in our series on inspiring women.

All’s well? Not quite. A reply came pinging back. The manufacturers—and to spare their blushes I won’t name them—had "their own charities that they donate to", and the PR "wouldn’t want to create any sort of conflict with them". So, to prevent causing us "any inconvenience", they would send a car round to collect the whisky later that day. They would, in other words, ungift us. 

So there, wrapped up in a ribbon with tinsel and fairy lights, is the clearest explanation of why freebies are tiresome. They are not gifts—noun or verb. They are bribes by the back door. Christmas spirit? Not in that bottle. 

Isabel Lloyd is deputy editor of Intelligent Life. Her recent posts for the Editors' Blog include The Dorchester's Domestic Air and Inspiring Women: Your Turn