Press officers and PRs are corrupting public life. Journalists must lead a revolt against this pestilential trade
As with Nye Bevan and Conservatives so with me and PR departments: “No amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for press officers. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.” Or as the BBC’s economics editor Robert Peston put it in his recent Charles Wheeler lecture, “I have never been in any doubt that PRs are the enemy.”
Let me explain how they are the nearest thing to prostitutes you can find in public life. You might say that biased reporters look more like sex workers, as they try to satisfy their readers’ every whim. But there is a small difference. The biased journalist occasionally tells the truth. He might produce propaganda, but his bias or that of his editor will cause him to investigate stories conventional wisdom does not notice. Right-wing journalists uncover truths about corruption in the European Union. Left-wing journalists discover truths about the crimes of Nato armies. They look at scandals others ignore precisely because they do not think like level-headed and respectable members of the mainstream.
Press officers have no concern with truth. It is not that all of them lie — although many do — rather that truth and falsity are irrelevant to their work. Their sole concern is to defend their employers’ interests. That they can manipulate on behalf of central government, local authority and other public bodies is an under-acknowledged scandal. The party in power that wishes to stop public scrutiny, or the NHS trust whose executives wish to maintain their positions, use taxpayer funds to advance their personal or political interests. If anyone else did the same, we would call them thieves.
It makes no difference who is in office. Conservatives complained about the spin and manipulation of New Labour but they are no different now. Indeed they are playing tricks those of us who lived through the Blair years haven’t seen before.
They withhold information from journalists in the hope of killing a story. If reporters publish nevertheless — as they should — the government tells their editors and anyone else who will listen that they are shoddy hacks who failed to put the other side of the story. An alternative tactic is for press officers to phone up at night, just after an article has appeared online, and try to bamboozle late-duty editors into making changes. I have had the Crown Prosecution Service and the BBC try to pull that one on me. That neither institution is in the political thick of it only goes to show that every dandruff-ridden PR in every backwater office now thinks he is Alastair Campbell.
Politicians and senior civil servants do not rate state-sponsored propagandists by their ability to tell the public what is done in their name with their money. Like corporate chief executives and celebrities, they judge them by their ability to keep uncomfortable stories out of the press.
Compare PRs with other despised trades. Journalists have blown the whistle on journalistic malpractice. Bankers have blown the whistle on financial malpractice. But I have never heard of a press officer going straight and coming clean by explaining how his government department or corporation manipulated public opinion.
Once you could have said that my comparison between press officers and prostitutes was unfair — to prostitutes. Poverty and drug addiction drives women on to the street. Press officers are not heroin addicts or the victims of child abuse. Nor do the equivalent of sex traffickers kidnap media studies graduates and force them to work in “comms”. PRs do not do what they do because a cruel world has left them with no alternative to selling their souls, but because they want to.
But that is no longer quite right. As the web destroys the media’s business model, PR is where the jobs are. Students leave university and go straight into PR or hang around newsrooms for a few years on internships and petty payments before giving up and joining the former reporters in PR departments.
A profound shift in the balance of power is under way, and the advantage lies with those who can buy coverage. You can see it on the screen and in the press. Television royal coverage is run by Buckingham Palace — I always tell foreigners that if they want to know what Britain would look like if it were a dictatorship, they should watch how the BBC reports the monarchy. Travel journalism is advertising in all but name. Press offices give travel “journalists” free holidays and they repay the favour in kind copy. Political coverage is still of a high quality, but the state-funded BBC is always open to attack from the state’s spin doctors. Meanwhile most serious news, business and arts journalism remains clean, but Private Eye has reported anger among Daily Telegraph journalists about the advertising department’s attempts to influence what they write.
Such conflicts will grow. The web has made most newspapers imitate most television stations. They give away their content and rely on advertising for an income. At the same time, the web has lowered the price of advertising by making a vast number of new outlets available to advertisers. In his speech, which is worth reading in full online, Peston said: “News that is a disguised advert, or has been tainted by commercial interests, is not worth the name.” But the need for money is pushing newspapers into creating more cloaked commercials.
Without sales revenue or conventional advertising revenue, media marketing departments are offering what they call “native” advertisements: commercials disguised as news features. Peston says BBC executives are thinking of doing the same — though how they could hope to retain public funding if they do is beyond me. Readers may not be aware that the videos they are watching or the stories they are reading are “sponsored content”, and that is the point. Manipulation works best when no one realises it is happening. PR departments aren’t just influencing or stifling news, but creating it, and passing off advertisements as independent journalism.
We are heading towards a media future that is not worth having. To avoid it we will need strict controls, backed by criminal sanctions, against the use of public money for propaganda, and a popular revolt against a pestilential trade. A start could be made by journalists. We should refuse to speak to press officers unless we intend to give them the ridicule and contempt they deserve.