Flat News Earth Debate -

07 March 2008

I had an interesting evening two nights ago at the Flat Earth News Debate organised by the Press Gazette following the launch of Nick Davies’ book. The topic for discussion was “Is a culture of “churnalism” destroying real journalism in the UK?”

Top marks to the Press Gazette for attracting a high profile panel that included the author, several very established journalists and editors as well as H&K’s UK CEO – the book is being widely discussed within the PR industry and it’s important that we take part in the discussion.

The full list of panellists was:

  • Nick Davies – Guardian writer, former British Press Awards reporter and feature writer of the year and author of Flat Earth News
  • Andrew Gilligan – the former Today Programme reporter whose investigations into the office of London Mayor Ken Livingstone have prompted a police inquiry and the suspension of one of Livingstone’s closest aides
  • Malcolm Starbrook – editor of the East London Advertiser, a former editor of the Croydon Advertiser and member of the Press Complaints Commission
  • Peter Preston – Observer media columnist and former Guardian editor.
  • Michelle Stanistreet – President of the NUJ and a journalist with the Daily Express
  • Sally Costerton – UK chief executive of PR firm Hill & Knowlton
  • Dominic Ponsford – editor of Press Gazette

The debate did get somewhat sidetracked into a discussion of bad pay within UK journalism, but as this is part of the problem that Nick Davies describes in his book, panellists and audience-members were allowed to run with this theme.

I’ll come clean and admit that I haven’t finished reading Flat Earth News, so my opinions are liable to change somewhat over the coming days, but in short Davies is saying that ownership of newspapers has shifted from benevolent patriarchs who were interested in power and influence to commercial organisations driven by the profit motive.

According to Davies, commercial pressures have led to journalists having to churn out up to ten news stories a day, leading to a failure to check facts and consequently to the publication of many untrue stories.

The situation is exacerbated by a reduction in the number of journalists which results in their taking announcements from official bodies such as courts and the government at face value. To make matters worse, the Press Association, which Davies describes in his book as “the primary conveyor belt along which information reaches national media in Britain,” has replaced a network of local staff reporters and freelance hacks who used to cover news around the country. Davies asserts that the Press Association is woefully understaffed and frequently resorts to passing on information unchecked, only for this to be taken as fact by journalists in the nationals.

The other main argument is that editors are faced with enormous pressures from, for example, the government to publish or not to publish stories. The example of Prince Harry’s recent tour of duty in Afghanistan was cited as a powerful example of press collusion – interestingly a show of hands revealed the audience at the debate to be split down the middle as to whether the press were right or wrong to do so.

While the discussion was largely interesting, the debate was effectively snuffed out by the author himself: several of the panellists, including Peter Preston, Andrew Gilligan and Francis Ingham challenged the factual basis upon which Davies builds his Flat Earth News arguments and it was hugely ironic that he batted away these accusations of poor fact-checking by saying that it was “boring” to get bogged down with the detail. A classic case of do as I say, don’t do as I do…

Hats off to Ingham for the night’s best soundbite: “PR isn’t that powerful, journalists are not that lazy, and the public are not that stupid.” Quite.

What does all that mean for PR agencies like H&K and Influencer50? Well, here’s the hard sell: any erosion of the influence of journalists means that other parties can muscle in and grab mindshare among the customers of our clients’ products and services, so from a selfish perspective it’s good news for PR practitioners who engage with non-media stakeholders.

While we absolutely condemn the plight of journalists and absolutely recognise their lack of numbers, it highlights the importance of identifying ALL the actors that carry weight on purchasing decisions and working to align their agenda with that of our clients for mutual benefit. In other words, less ‘Media Relations’ and more ‘Public Relations’ in its true sense (or ‘influencer marketing’ if you must). In short, it puts a multi-specialist like H&K in a particularly powerful position as we frequently combine our deep expertise in disciplines as diverse as Public Affairs, Change Management and Analyst Relations with sector knowledge in Financial Services, Healthcare and Technology, etc. When combined with top class media relations, the result is a truly powerful marketing communications campaign that reflects directly on clients’ bottom lines.

My colleagues Guy and Niall, being more dedicated bloggers, have already posted their own takes on the debate – the latter demonstrating his note-taking skills by reproducing a good summary of the panellists’ positions.

2 Responses to “Flat News Earth Debate -”

  1. Ludovic

    Hi Dom,

    Would be great if you could link to the blog :-)

    Have a nice WE, missed you yesterday….

  2. Dominic Pannell

    This Site Is Under Construction and Coming Soon.

    This Domain Is Registered with Network Solutions

    - need I say more, Ludo?


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