It is a self-regarding conceit of journalism that we are the dogs for whom public relations furnishes the lamp posts, says John Lloyd writing in the Financial Times.
In a jaundiced view of the relationship between journalism and PR in politics, Lloyd’s “The Truth about Spin” in Friday’s FT presents an uncomfortable partnership between two professions where neither appears to have anything other than self-interest as its motive for being:
There is a phrase attributed to, among others, Harold Evans when he was editor of The Sunday Times, which was advice given to his reporters: “Always ask yourself, when interviewing a politician, why is this bastard lying to me?” It’s been denounced as cynical, but it’s from a more innocent age. It was self-servingly innocent to assume that “lying” is a one-sided phenomenon. Today, advice by any government communications adviser to ministers, MPs, civil servants and political aides would be a variation on the Evans advice: “Always ask yourself, when being interviewed by a journalist, how will this bastard distort what I’m saying?”
While Lloyd paints a dark and cynical picture of this journalism/PR niche, he then goes on to highlight a significant point which I believe is the heart of the real symbiosis between journalism and PR:
[...] Public relations and journalism do not inhabit separate worlds; in particular, the relationship between them is not that of sleazy liars seeking to seduce seekers after truth. Truth does not reside on one side only. Standards are not the monopoly of one and unknown to the other. Journalism cannot understand itself unless it understands what public relations has done to it; how murky and grubby the relationship can become, with the connivance of both, and how the relationship might work to the benefit of citizens who should be told something like the truth.
Some might say that if you want the truth, don’t read newspapers.
What Lloyd’s feature indicates to me is the role social media will play (is playing) in evolving that symbiosis where no longer will it be just an inefficient and untrustworthy filtering system. And in the political area, we need more direct-speaking from ministers and MPs without the filtered spin from PRs and journalists.
I’ll add my own cynicism to Lloyd’s feature with this view – most PRs and journalists add little value to truth-telling if they’re nothing more than channels or conduits who distort and manipulate the original message. Assuming, of course, that their roles are to do with truth-telling.
If you want to get close to the truth, cut out the middlemen. Let the citizens make up their own minds as to what is truth.