How a fizzy drink landed me and Scarlett Johansson in hot water

Getting busy with the fizzy

Getting busy with the fizzy

It was Sir Henry Wotton, King James’s man in Venice, who, in 1604, nailed down the diplomat’s job description .

“An ambassador,” he said “is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”

What the distinguished courtier would have made of the modern trend of brand ambassadorship is anyone’s guess, but it is a safe bet his cynicism would be undiminished.

The marriage of politics and celebrity is one fraught with risks for both sides.

As you will know, unless you have been living in a remote idyll blessedly free of an  internet connection, the latest star to get caught in the crossfire of controversial product endorsement is Scarlett Johansson.

Johansson’s gig plugging the fizzy drink brand SodaStream was judged to be at odds with her work as global ambassador for Oxfam.

SodaStream is headquartered in Tel Aviv and has a factory in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Oxfam is opposed to trade with the settlements.

The brouhaha brought back memories of my visit to the factory in 2012. I travelled to Israel and the Palestine Authority to research an article about SodaStream for The Argus newspaper in Brighton. As I made clear in the piece, my trip was at the invitation and expense of SodaStream.

The article was published in the newspaper’s business supplement and online and provoked a lively debate. An excerpt was also published on Jonathan Hoffman’s blog on the Jewish Chronicle website and that too generated an animated response.

A commenter called ‘Mary in Brighton’ wrote: “No one was surprised by what John Keenan had to say, it was known it was going to happen. After all where would his next all expenses paid jolly have come from? What Jonathan failed to mention is that Argus journalists are horrified at his sycophancy and at how cheaply he was bought. This article will come back to bite him. Further, that Sodastream feel they have to go to these lengths suggests they are not as confident as they would have us believe.”

If my colleagues at the Argus were horrified they failed to let me know me. Admittedly, life on a local daily newspaper is hectic and few reporters would have regarded  stopping by my desk for a chat on ethics as a productive use of their time. On the other hand, there are not many wallflowers on the reporters’ and news editors’ desks at Argus House and reticence rarely featured in our daily debates as we put the paper together. But maybe on this occasion my co-workers bottled up their outrage only to vent it all over Mary in Brighton. Who knows?

‘Real Real Zionist’ quoted Samuel Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and an expert on media ethics: “A responsible journalist has no business taking a free trip to Israel — or to any other country, or to a Hollywood film studio’s junket at a resort, or to any other destination that is involved in the subject matter that the journalist covers or is likely to cover in the future. Period.”

Salutary stuff from the halls of academe. But there are other, equally valid, views.

David Randall is an editor at the Independent. He has been news editor and night editor of three national newspapers. In his book ‘The Universal Journalist’ (Pluto Press, 3rd edition) he writes: “Hidden advertising (which should be correctly labelled ‘advertising’ and typographically treated accordingly), is very rare in developed countries. Far more common is the acceptance by journalists of what they call freebies, that is free trips with vacation companies, free meals from restaurants or free tickets from theatres all given so that journalists can review them. The danger here is that the writer will feel obliged to write a favourable piece. This need not be so, and the dangers can be minimised and faith kept with the reader if it is made plain somewhere in the piece or in a footnote that the ticket/meal/trip or whatever was given free to the newspaper.”

So there we are: two sides of the same walnut. In the cut and thrust of UK newspapers, David Randall’s approach is more often adopted that Samuel Freedman’s.

I travelled to Israel and Palestine with an honest intention to discover and write about the situation there. I was not offered any incentive to publish anything. And I did not concoct or burnish the information.

One thing I have in common with Scarlett Johansson – it may well be the only thing – is that I know what is feels like to get an ear-bashing from an entrenched position masquerading as moral outrage.