Archive for the ‘Nick Davies’ tag

Journalism 0-1 PR

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The journalists lost. At the end of last night’s sparky and spikey Media Standards Trust / Westminster University debate, 59 people voted for the motion “The growth of PR is threatening the integrity of the Press” vs. 164 against (with about 80 plus abstentions). Ouch.

How did it happen? Before the event the journalists looked like they would walk it. Nick Davies cited copious examples from his book, Flat Earth News, of wiley PR people manipulating the media in favour of their clients. And Roy Greenslade made a strong case for the serious and growing imbalance between the ‘seekers of truth and gatekeepers to truth’.

At the same time Lord (Tim) Bell was unable to explain why concealing the truth about BAE, Saudi Arabia, Boris Berezovsky and the president of Belarus (all of whom his company, Chime Communications, represents) was not against the public interest. And nor did Phil Hall (head of Phil Hall associates) respond to Greenslade’s challenge that PRs were blocking journalists’ access to information.

But there were, I think, four reasons why the journalists lost. Two just and two unjust.

First the just reasons:

Bell and Hall made robust defences of PR. If you’re going to blame anyone for journalism’s lack of integrity, both argued, you have to start with the news organisations themselves. If proprietors, or ‘the prawn sandwich brigade’ as Hall called them, weren’t so obsessed with their shareholders then maybe they’d put more money and effort into raising their standards of journalism.

Davies conceded that journalists were as much to blame. “Our trade is broken” Davies said, as a consequence of market and competitive forces. And as a result, journalists leave themselves open to PR advances.

And the unjust?

The audience was biased. There was definitely a majority of PR students and practitioners in the auditorium who, one felt, had pretty much made up their minds before they came in.

But, more substantively, I’d argue that the extent of the imbalance between PR and journalism is not yet widely enough known. Nick Davies’ book has some great examples of the wheezes of PR companies, and some fascinating analysis of the quantity of PR material in the newspapers, but we need more, much more. We need analyses of PR material from across all media. We need evidence of the number and type of approaches made by PR to journalism. And, most of all, we need investigations that demonstrate how much public interest material is concealed or buried by PR.

If we’re going to make the relationship between journalism and PR more transparent; if we’re going to prevent a build-up of ignorance and animosity between the two (and enhance the integrity of both), then we need to be more informed. We need to do more legwork.

Written by Martin Moore

April 10th, 2008 at 3:14 pm

The charge sheet against public relations

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“What we are looking at here is a global collapse of information gathering and truth-telling”, Nick Davies warns ominously in Flat Earth News (p.154). Let it never be said that journalists over-use hyperbole.

Davies is kept awake at nights worrying about the loss of original reporting, the growing dominance of commercial over public interest values, and the increasing influence of public relations over journalism.

It’s this last that he’ll be debating Wednesday night. Lined up alongside Roy Greenslade he will argue that ‘The growth of PR is threatening the integrity of the Press’ (organised by us – Media Standards Trust – in association with Westminster University). Against Lord (Tim) Bell (the same Lord Bell who has just taken on the president of Belarus as a client) and Phil Hall (who has just taken on Max Mosley).

So what’s Davies’ charge sheet? Well, going by his book he has at least 5 beefs:

1. Interviews: “[A]lmost all interviews are generated not by the reporter actively uncovering the truth, but by the interviewee’s PR adviser actively making news to sell a policy or product” (8.10 Today Programme included?)

2. The [Non] Event: “PR fabricates pseudo incidents” (Olympic torch anyone?)

3. ‘Astroturf’ campaigns: or supposedly grass roots campaigns whose roots have actually been fabricated. Davies fingers Weber Shandwick (for Roche), Gray & Co (for porn industry), Beckel Cowan for American Petroleum Institute), Shandwick (for the food industry) and Lexington (for GM food companies)

4. Pseudo experts: who have impressive sounding titles and work for grand sounding think tanks but actually represent only one specific organisational or individual interest (think Norman Brennan and the Victims of Crime Trust)

5. Polls that aren’t really polls: you know the ones – the UK’s favourite films, women’s favourite holidays… that sort of thing

“Journalists are fundamentally vulnerable to this kind of pseudo-news”, Davies says, which flows like a torrent into our now ‘unprotected media’. It all adds up, he claims, to a ‘pseudo world’.

Now hold on. ‘Unprotected media’? Vulnerable journalists? Doesn’t the assertion of victimhood by the UK’s feral beasts sound slightly hollow?

Davies is absolutely right to highlight the growth of increasingly sophisticated public relations but it’s difficult to square that with a meek and mild press when it boasts such figures as Jeremy Paxman, Paul Dacre and Trevor Kavanagh.

No, the most important thing Davies has done is to expose an increasingly complex and often murky aspect of our ‘independent media’. And by doing so he will, I hope, lead many journalists – and PR companies – to be alot more transparent about what they’re doing and why.

The debate’s now full up but we have a wait list. If you’d like to join it you can email Or you can read my blog about it later this week.

Written by Martin Moore

April 8th, 2008 at 3:21 pm

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The big debate – Journalism vs PR, April 9th

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Earning over £6.5 billion a year and enjoying double digit growth, our public relations industry is now the second biggest in the world (behind the US).

Contrast that with the news industry. Newspaper circulations are in decline, internet revenues show no sign of replacing print revenues in the near future, and news organisations are cutting editorial budgets and desperately searching for new ways to make money.

Is the growth of PR threatening the integrity of the press?

We’re holding a major debate on this motion in association with the University of Westminster at the Old Cinema on Regent Street on 9th April at 6.30pm.

Arguing for the motion are Nick Davies, award winning Guardian journalist and author of Flat Earth News, and Roy Greenslade, ex-editor of the Daily Mirror, Guardian media blogger and professor of journalism.

In his book Davies claims that journalism is turning into churnalism. That journalists are regurgitating public relations material and presenting it as independent news. That over 40% of articles in our 5 most prestigious dailies are initiated by PR. Public relations is, Davies suggests, sapping our news of its political and social value.

Arguing against the motion are Lord Bell, Chairman of Chime Communications, and Phil Hall, ex-editor of the News of the World and founder of PR firm Phil Hall Associates.

As one of the most well known figures in PR in the UK, Lord (Tim) Bell will be able to talk about the industry’s growing influence based on lots of first hand knowledge. His firm’s client list includes Boris Berezovsky, BAE, the Saudi Arabian government, and some prominent Labour Party donors. On top of which Bell is, according to his biographer Mark Hollingsworth, “a dealer in information… [who] establishes close relationships with journalists and editors as a way of ensuring that his client’s message is conveyed to his liking… Favours are offered and received: if the story about the client is spiked, the journalist is handed an even better exclusive about someone else. If the article is published, future cooperation is withdrawn”.

The event is free but we need names on the door for numbers and security (email

Motion: The growth of PR is threatening the integrity of the press
Organised by: The Media Standards Trust in association with Westminster University
At: The Old Cinema, Westminster University, 309 Regents Street, Wednesday 9th April, 6.30pm
For: Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News, and Roy Greenslade, ex-editor of the Daily Mirror and Professor of Journalism
Against: Lord Bell, Chairman of Chime Communications, and Phil Hall, ex-editor of the News of the World and founder of PR firm Phil Hall Associates
Free: but names must be given in advance (email

Written by Martin Moore

March 7th, 2008 at 12:02 pm

Exposed: PR's relationship with journalism

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Journalism relies heavily on public relations and news agency copy.

As a statement (rather than a judgment or criticism) this should not be that shocking. Newspapers have almost always used news wire services extensively, and ‘PR’ can cover everything from departmental press releases through to news about scientific discoveries to setting up celebrity interviews.

But listening to the reaction of some journalists and editors you’d have thought Nick Davies and Cardiff University (who conducted the quantitative research on which a good part of Davies’ book is based) had just accused them of rape and murder.

There is now doubt that some of the claims of the research are galling. The headline figure is that “60% of press articles and 34% of broadcast stories come wholly or mainly from these ‘pre-packaged’ sources’” – i.e. PR or news wires. This, the report says, is much higher than it used to be and is directly connected to the increased demands placed on journalists to produce more copy for more platforms more quickly. On average, according to Cardiff’s research, journalists are writing three times more copy each day than they did 20 years ago.

But what is really shocking is how opaque this reliance is. The researchers at Cardiff had to spend an enormous amount of time trying to trace back sources for each story. They had to compare articles with wire copy and press releases to see how similar they were. They had call round sources to see which had been used.

If this research is true – and it is one of the first attempts to explore the murky relationship between news and PR – then news organisations should not go into ostrich-like self-denial but open themselves up. Be explicit when they are using press releases. Tell the reader if a report is substantially based on agency copy.

Denying there is a close relationship is absurd and unsustainable. Being transparent is both more honest to the public and accentuates the value of original journalism.

Written by Martin Moore

February 5th, 2008 at 1:13 pm

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