Rafael Nadal (Image: AAP/Mark Evans)

Over the weekend, The Age’s veteran sports writer Greg Baum laid bare the open secret of how one secures an interview with a superstar who has a product to hock.

Baum wrote of how The Age was contacted by a PR company offering an interview with male tennis world number one, Rafael Nadal. The piece gives readers a peek at the troubling intersection between celebrity, commerce and news:

The interview would last 10 minutes, 15 max. The questions to be asked would have to be submitted in advance. And one would have to be about a travel insurance agency that is sponsoring Nadal …

[The resulting story would] have to carry a tagline at the end noting Nadal’s involvement with the sponsor. A tagline is not so unusual, and normally is just that, a line. But this one was 50 words. Any wordier and it would be called a section.

The offer further asked that a high-res image from the ad campaign be included.

“Does it matter?” Baum wrote. “Yes, it does. It goes to the heart of editorial independence, and the way some think they can ride roughshod over it.” 

Baum finishes the piece with a painful account of author Chloe Hooper interviewing Roger Federer, as the superstar scrambles to include gratuitous references to a certain brand of champagne in his final answer.

The Age eventually declined the interview, but The Australian, The Herald Sun and The Australian Financial Review all took the opportunity to run chummy profiles of Nadal.

“There are countless stories of Nadal’s normality,” The Oz‘s Courtney Walsh observes, which gives you a sense of the general tone. Walsh’s piece includes several paragraphs on the ad campaign, and the online version includes a link to the ad in question.

Both the Oz and the Hun include, verbatim, the same quote about Nadal’s involvement with the campaign. And, despite sounding suspiciously like something written by a PR flack, it’s presented as something Nadal said during the interview.

The variety of publications accepting the chance to chat with Rafa also gives an insight into how they approach the challenge of turning a PR chat into something of interest to their readers. So while the Oz went straight profile, the Hun had Rafa “open up on his doubts, getting married and his passion for nature“. Meanwhile, the AFR angled towards his investments and fabulous wealth.

The AFR is also the least slavish to the format Baum describes. Nadal’s ad campaign just gets a passing mention (and a link in the online version). While the main copy acknowledges that the campaign is why they are talking in the first place, the publication doesn’t include the tagline at the bottom of the piece about the company’s involvement. The Oz and Hun do.