Less dazzle than frazzle

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Press junkets are no holiday. Sarah Wild shares the dirty truth.

Trying to explain reticence about overseas media trips to office-bound friends is futile.“Ah, shame,” they say, sarcasm dripping from their voices. “You’re going to [insert name of seemingly exotic location].

Poor you.” You can see the vistas of white sandy beaches or the streets of pulsing cosmopolitan cities in their eyes.

They think that I’m going to be spending my time reclining on a lounger, being fed peeled grapes by a well-oiled nubile.

You try to explain that it’s work, and not a holiday. There are no long walks on the beach or wandering along the high street searching for a nice little coffee house to while the time away. But they don’t want to hear it.

There is a big difference between travelling for work and travelling for pleasure. A media junket smells of the stale air of a long-haul flight, the unwashed-body scent of airports that takes days to wash off (you add to this smell, even though you pretend not to notice), the perfumed — or worse, sterile disinfectant — smell of a tiny hotel room where there isn’t even enough space to put down a yoga mat.

It would be like being excited to go to a conference — except this conference takes 10 hours to get to, and you will inevitably arrive at a nondescript hotel with views of a parking arcade.

This is far removed from the heyday of the press junket. Ten years ago, journalists clamoured at plane doors to go on press trips. In the good ol’ days, I’m told, you were schmoozed, treated like royalty, with a public relations flunky at your beck and call. It was about “relationship building” rather than story writing.

These days you have to motivate to your newsdesk to go on a story, and then you are expected to produce. There are no sozzled chats in an exotic bar late at night — you are at your desk in a nondescript hotel room, writing, bleary-eyed. In some ways, it is a blessing; it spares you the trauma of having to find something to watch on the mini-bouquet of channels offered on TV.

Worse, there is the curious fact that complimentary tea and coffee in your hotel room are not a universal custom. About a year ago, I was in Germany on a tour of their higher learning and research institutes.

Since I was travelling from a South African summer to a European winter, in retrospect flu seemed inevitable. There I was: feverish, sick and miserable in a hotel room, far away from home. For the first time in my life there was no consoling cup of tea to make the world a better place, and the only thing that I could say to anyone was “I think this country should be colonised and taught the importance of tea”.

My German hosts pretended to ignore me. It must be said that there are folk who see these trips as freebies, a chance to kick off their shoes and enjoy an overseas holiday on someone else’s tab.

I once went on a trip where a certain senior editor from a certain large newspaper spent most of his time so liquored that he couldn’t distinguish between female air hostesses and female colleagues, and so decided to hit on everyone indiscriminately. We hate these people and rejoice in their hangovers.

But the worst thing about a junket is that PR companies think they own you. After your economy 10-hour red-eye flight, you arrive at 8pm in a strange city to be trundled off into a holding pen disguised as the “VIP press area” at a cocktail event so that you don’t actually talk to or interrupt anyone of consequence.

Not that the chief executives or heads of government would slum in the press area. The people who do speak to you want something from you, and even the customary small talk has the edge of avarice. If you think you feel dirty after two days of travel without a shower, just wait until some ingratiating person spreads their net of insincere-one-size-fits-all charm on you. It takes weeks of washing to feel clean again.

Douglas Adams says that the most important advice for a traveller is “don’t panic, take a towel”. I disagree. It should be “don’t lose your temper, take a toothbrush”. You can lose your temper in a bank and people are slightly embarrassed for you. You can lose your temper in the post office and people are sympathetic. In an airport? People think you are a terrorist.

It is a bit concerning that one of the most high-tech industries in the world, the people who put you in a metal box and somehow keep it aloft despite gravity, are incapable of being efficient; there are flight delays, lost days at airports, lost luggage.

Most recently, I was on a trip to France to cover a student aviation competition and, over a glass of wine in Johannesburg before I left, a misguided friend told me how lucky I was. With those words, the entire trip was jinxed. As a South African, I am used to strikes. But I had never had a flight cancelled because of it or had my luggage lost because of it or been rerouted to another two countries because of it. In fact, I had never spent more than 50 hours in five days in an aircraft or an airport.

But all of these things did happen to me in France, via the Netherlands and Germany.

Upon my final arrival in Toulouse, 10 hours late with no clothes or toothbrush, the only shop open at 8.30pm was the French equivalent of a Massmart, the Auchan chain, with a store on the outskirts of the city. So I spent the next three days trying to be a professional journalist looking like Britney Spears during her trailer trash phase, with jeans you could fit three people into and a shirt so tight it was almost see-through.

So don’t tell me how lucky I am. That all said, I would rather be a journalist in the field than behind a desk any day. Although, for the time being, those fields are going to be in South Africa and aren’t going to involve a plane.

By Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a Rhodes University graduate

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