Pot calls kettle black

06 March 2008

UPDATE: Rainier PR’s Stephen Waddington chips in with ‘Flat Earth debate disappoints’ (Great first comment too)
UPDATE 2: Press Gazette has now published their write-up (no doubt they were checking their facts and quotes, unlike us bloggers) and Guy has posted his thoughts.

I spent yesterday evening at the London College of Communication for the Flat Earth News debate organised by Press Gazette.

On the panel were Dominic Ponsford (Press Gazette), Francis Ingham (PRCA), Malcolm Starbrook (East London Advertiser), Sally Costerton (Hill & Knowlton), Paul Charman (chair), Nick Davies (author of Flat Earth News), Peter Preston (ex-Guardian), Andrew Gilligan (Evening Standard) and Michelle Stainstreet (NUJ).

Below follow my hastily typed notes from the main panel discussion. I’ve tried to tidy them up without losing their spontaneity. There was some Q&A afterwards, but this unfortunately descended into less questioning of the panel and more assertion from the floor.

Nick Davies opened proceedings by saying that the negative response against his book is not representative of overall feedback he has received. The core argument he presented was that ownership of the media has changed, and the resulting commercialism has undermined the media. The time taken away from journalists because of this is making them vulnerable to manipulation from companies and public relations. He appeared to be blaming PR for the fact that journalists don’t check facts. They miss stories because they rely on PR and newswires. He wants to stop PR people making judgements about what stories and angles get carried.

I was quite surprised to hear from a journalist that PR is quite so powerful. I wonder if someone could tell our clients…

In response Peter Preston urged a sense of reality. Newspapers are commercial. Its not all awful, but there are things we need to do. He had his day in the Q&A session later.

Michelle Stainstreet took the somewhat predictable ‘told you so’ stance. It’s all down to job cuts, long hours, poor pay deals, etc. Journalists are tied to their desks, churning out stories. It’s not the journalists fault, she suggested, it’s the owners in pursuit of profit. Of course, she finished, they should all join the NUJ.

Sally Costerton disagreed with Nick’s point that readers and viewers are being misled. She argued that PR people are enablers who need to understand journalists’ agendas. Nick represents PR on a polarised level in his book – all lobbying and stunts. But the vast majority of what PR does is not that. Transparency is key – staff at Hill & Knowlton for example are bound by numerous codes of conduct. She also raised the issue of the explosion of channels – in particular, the spiralling of content on the internet which is not going to go away. Journalists are also bloggers – wearing two hats. This is new territory, how do PRs and journalists engage together? At the end of the day both parties want to stand up for the truth.

Malcolm Starbrook took issue with Nick’s interpretation of figures. Fewer journalists and less time doesn’t mean worse journalism. The world is just moving faster. In addition, access to sources has been restricted that means that some of the old ‘bread and butter’ journalism simply isn’t possible today (e.g. defendants/witnesses can have journalists removed from court). Also, churnalism is not the same as sloppy journalism. It’s just the result of bad editors.

Francis Ingham was probably the boldest critic on the panel. He said that the picture painted about PR in the book is “partial, unfair and misleading.” In possible the best quote of the night he said, “PR isn’t that powerful, journalists are not that lazy, and the public are not that stupid.” Argued that PR companies live or die on the strength of their reputations. Once their credibility is gone, its gone forever. A few gasps from the audience when he summed the book up as good entertainment: “Like a Jeffrey Archer novel. Good fun to read, but not to be taken too seriously.”

By this time, things needed cooling down (including the lecture theatre which appeared to have no air conditioning). Dominic Ponsford pointed out that in his opinion the standard of journalism in regional press is generally excellent. But there is no doubt that PR material is a handy form of copy.

Andrew Gilligan – who arrived fashionably late, first in his cycling gear (some of the audience later said they thought he was the pizza delivery boy) – said that he was a nuanced supporter of the book, given his own experiences of being both story-writer and the story itself. Focused on the web: “The web has transformed my productivity as a journalist.” Also argued that the web is the ultimate definition of churnalism. “All journalism is judgement.” You have to include which facts to leave in and which to leave out. The two things journalists want are stories and follow-up.

In all, an interesting evening. Not much of a debate, to be honest, and not really sure whether the overall motion was passed or defeated.

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3 Responses to “Pot calls kettle black”

  1. Stephen Waddington

    Hi Niall – Shame we didn’t meet-up. So much promise, and such a poor performance. I think it was really poorly moderated. Francis Ingham did the PR industry no favours. Your boss was very good though.

  2. Sherrilynne Starkie

    Niall, it sounds like it was an interesting discussion.  Thanks for taking the time to share it.  

  3. ARcade

    I had an interesting evening two nights ago at the Flat Earth News Debate organised by the Press Gazette

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