Opinion

Don’t bother crying foul over chequebook journalism

paul merrillMagazines have a long history of paying for tall tales simply because these stories sell. Paul Merrill debates the whys and wherefores of chequebook journalism

Years ago, when I was editing a women’s weekly mag, we were offered a story about a chicken that thought it was a dog. Sweet enough for a single pager, so we offered the owner around $100 and despatched a snapper to capture the chook in action. But we’d jumped the gun. Another mag had offered her $200, and no contract had been signed. As the photographer was going to cost us some $500, we upped our offer, and so did the other mag. Eventually, we paid this woman $650, and ended up with some photos of a chicken that looked like a chicken, and a few anecdotes about it enjoying running with the border collies.

Chequebook journalism sells magazines. Gone are the days when a case history would be so thrilled to be appearing in a national publication they wouldn’t even think about asking for money. These days, anyone with a dog-like hen would have Max Markson on speed dial.

But what are the limits? Channel Nine was berated a while back for allegedly offering a prostitute $60,000 to spill the beans on Craig Thomson. Yet paying a celebrity to kiss and tell on another celebrity is fine. Is that because hookers are less credible than famous people? Arguably both will do a lot if the money’s right.

And what about crims? Should David Hicks have got cash for his tale? And when Schapelle walks free, should she be allowed to become a millionaire overnight and end up richer than if she’d never been jailed? (I can’t really get on my high horse here as I once paid her sister a five-figure sum to pose for a men’s mag).

I would say yes to both. The distinction between public interest and an interested public has long been blurred, and should be irrelevant. Magazine journalism is a business like any other with supply and demand, and a framework of defamation laws to keep it straight.

There is nothing wrong with paying as long as you are not breaking the law.

Oh, and the chicken’s owner rang us two weeks after publication to say one of her collies had eaten it, and were we interested in a follow up. But not for chicken feed.

Paul Merrill is the former editor of Zoo Weekly

This feature first appeared in the July edition of Encore magazine. To download it for free from the App Store, click here.

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