Archive for June, 2008
The PR vs Journalism debate continues tomorrow – this time at the Westminster Media Forum. Lord Fowler and Baroness Howe are chairing – fresh from the Select Committee on Communications that just published its report on Friday. Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News, will open by painting a scary and depressing picture of the reliance of contemporary journalism on PR (I’m guessing – based on his description of the situation in Flat Earth News – he could of course paint a very different picture).
I’m appearing on one of the panels along with Mark Borkowski, Willam Gore and James Doherty, talking about what – if anything – can be done “to ensure good standards of reliability in reporting”.
Without reprising much of the background to this debate (for which you can read about – or even listen to – the PR/Journalism event we held back in April) I’m going to suggest three things (given I’ll only have 3 minutes):
1. We don’t need more regulation. As with regulation of the press, it’s difficult to see how the benefits of regulating PR would outweigh the damage it could do. Except in extreme cases – such as financial insider trading information – where there are already regulatory and self-regulatory measures in place, it’s hard to see how greater policing and surveillance by the government would be a better cure than exposure in the press.
2. We do need more transparency. When the number of people working in public relations in Britain surpasses the number of journalists (as happened recently according to Nick Davies), and when the line between PR material and journalism – especially online – becomes blurred to the point of invisibility, then it’s clear we need to know more about the information we’re consuming so we can judge it better. As David Weinberger writes in his fascinating new book, Everything is Miscellaneous, ‘the solution to the over abundance of information is more information’. Indeed this is the whole purpose of the Media Standards Trust’s tranparency initiative (that I’ve blogged about here).
3. PR needs to adopt some of the values of journalism. The growth of PR – within independent news and elsewhere – isn’t going to stop. PR will become bigger and even more amorphous. When you read on GreenPeace’s website that a Japanese vessel has just broken international whaling law, is it news or PR? Both. When you learn from an email press release that scientists at Newcastle have just identified an alzheimer’s gene is that news or PR? Both. Therefore it’s not a question of ‘how do we constrain PR?’ but rather ‘how do we change some of the behaviour and values of PR given its new and expanding role?’ In particular, how do we convince those within PR – particularly those in the public sector or at NGOs, that they are part of a new and expanded Fourth Estate, and as such have a greater responsibility to society than they used to (when much of what they put out was ‘filtered’)? (see earlier blog on ‘why charities need to become more like news organisations’ too).
Any thoughts on this much appreciated. These are tricky questions and I certainly wouldn’t claim to have answers to many of them – so let me know what you think (and if you let me know before tomorrow morning it’ll feed into what I say).
I’ll blog at more length about this report – there’s an awful lot of meat to digest in it first – but before I do I want to correct a mistake for the record.
I’m quoted in the report as saying that the editor of the Daily Mail was on the Editorial Code Committee at the same time as being on the Press Complaints Commission. He was not. He was on the Press Board of Finance at the same time as being on the Press Complaints Commission. He then stepped down from the Press Complaints Commission when he was made chair of the Editorial Code Committee in May, but still sits on the Press Board of Finance.
The substance of my point – that there are serious conflicts of interest between the different parts of the PCC, that working editors should not set the rules, police the rules, and/or act as paymasters at the same time – still stands. But I apologise for my error.
Today’s PCC ruling against JK Rowling’s privacy complaint raises intriguing questions about what constitutes the ‘public domain’ and what the responsibilities of the press are once someone is in it.
Rowling had complained that pieces in the Daily Mirror, the Daily Record and the Mail on Sunday that identified the location of her home in Perthshire had violated her privacy. The PCC ruled that, since the information was ‘already publicly available to a significant extent’, the papers had a right to publish.
So what does it mean to be ‘publicly available to a considerable extent’? Well, if you do a Google search on JK Rowling’s Scottish house you get, half way down the first page, Rowling’s entry in Wikipedia. Within this entry there are details of the name of her house, the banks of the river on which it sits, and the nearest town. There is also a separate entry on the house itself (with more helpful links).
Given Wikipedia’s significant profile and audience this almost certainly qualifies as being ‘publicly available to a significant extent’ (Rowling’s entry has been viewed in May 2008, according to an unofficial Wikipedia stats site, 84,000 times). Indeed the PCC even references the Wikipedia entry in its adjudication: ‘it [Rowling's home] also appeared in considerable detail on the internet, including on the Wikipedia website, where the complainant’s home even had its own entry as a dwelling of some historical note’.
But isn’t there a problem here? What if I’m a journalist writing an article about a well-known person and want to publish their address. Right now it’s only on the land registry which doesn’t count as being ‘publicly available to a significant extent’. So I go to Wikipedia, add their address to the entry (or create an entry if they don’t yet have one), and hey presto! It’s now significantly publicly available.
Hmmm… doesn’t this make the whole definition of ‘publicly available to a significant extent’ slightly farcical? And what other private information does this apply to? Oh, and where else can someone publish that information for it to count as ‘publicly available to a significant extent’? MySpace, Facebook, a MyTelegraph blog, a Comment is Free comment?
The overwhelming number of comments on many of these (not all by any means) are one-sided, often aggressively one-sided, and often aggressively one-sided against the publication in which they’re commenting. Many of the community commenting on the Guardian’s CiF appear to feel little but contempt for the publication. Take a look, for example, at responses to Polly Toynbee’s piece about the ‘Miserablist’ media today. Since this is probably not a fair example – many commenters targeting their aggression at the columnist rather than the publication – have a look too at comments on David Cox’s fascinating piece a few months back, ‘Media and the Mob’.
Is it cathartic? Does leaving a comment attacking the column – or columnist – relieve some of the anger of the commenter? People have, it is true, spent so many years unable to respond in real time to opinion pieces to which they object that this may simply be a natural reaction to the many years mainstream media has filtered, censored and suppressed the public voice.
Still, there is a peculiar lack of balance that suggests big media have not yet worked out the best way to structure comment spaces. Responses to today’s Telegraph View, ‘What is the BBC for?‘, for example, though not anti-Telegraph, are overwhelmingly anti-BBC. Are Telegraph readers really that hostile to the BBC? Do the vast majority of them think the Corporation is “just another feature of the revoltingly decayed British state” (Jake). Or that its primary purpose is “Leftist propaganda” (Luke) and “the dissemination of left-wingery, political correctness and soft porn” (RS). These, by the way, are some of the more polite comments.
And yet, do an analysis of the media consumption of Telegraph readers and you find the majority of them consume significant amounts of the BBC and, in surveys at least, appear to like quite a lot of the news it provides and the programmes it makes.
Perhaps, as Jeff Jarvis told the ‘Future of Journalism’ conference, news organisations simply need to get much better at hosting debates. “We need to figure out who the smart people are – it’s not just about creating content but also curating people.” By this he means (I think) that news websites need the odd David Dimbleby to help frame a discussion and encourage those to speak who might otherwise lack a voice.
Equally, better that people vent their anger on the web than on the street. Perhaps we do need the odd Speakers’ Corner after all.