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Spinner-in-chief: Every tinpot PR now thinks he is Alastair Campbell

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.
 
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Anon
July 28th, 2014
5:07 PM
Nick makes the good point that the balance of power is changing. There used to be lots of journalists with enough time on their hands to properly research a story. That isn't the case now. It means that an increasing amount of copy is PR-generated. Given the financial travails of most media outlets I can't see that changing. A journalist under pressure to fill his/her publication must be tempted to believe any old guff. There is an answer - the internet. I see very many well-informed blogs. I learn more from them than I do from the BBC or newspapers. It's a shame that so few people read them.

Countdown2
July 10th, 2014
3:07 PM
Surely Robert Peston doesn't think the output of a future BBC which would have to pay its way by giving advertisers what they want can be any worse than the current outfit which acts like the propaganda wing of the Green Party?

Richard Whipple
July 9th, 2014
7:07 PM
So, now I have read and digested the article and I see a bunch on my colleagues in this discussion here and I have to ask: WHERE ARE YOUR VOICES IN THE MANAGEMENT OF OUR TRADE (I refuse to demean the term profession)? True press agentry is not the sum total of PR’s potential to be a voice in business but how many clients call up a PR agency for a Corporate Conscience. And just where and by whom is this work taught? After three decades work on multiple continents with Fortune 100 companies I am willing to intuit that a good 99% of calls into the name brand PR agencies, which are all controlled by three corporations, are for perception management rather than Corporate Conscience/Governance work. *** Press officers have no concern with truth. truth and falsity are irrelevant to their work. *** This is spot on. PRSA pays lip service to ethics but without a revocable professional license, the service to the public is meaningless spin. And they do not want to pursue a licensing agenda. Rather they shame whistleblowers (contrary to policy). *** They withhold information from journalists in the hope of killing a story. *** How we have fallen from the management of information to withholding it altogether. Technically, still information management. Amazing what multitude of sins good phrasing can cover up, no? But let’s not stop there. Let’s consider what PR did for the tobacco industry or in the case of American Express vs. Edward Safra. *** I have never heard of a press officer going straight and coming clean by explaining how his government department or corporation manipulated public opinion. *** You would have if you were in PR: Scott McClellan, Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee and others who are/were vilified. My mentor called for licensing and freely admitted his role in black public relations work for everyone: a real gun for hire. He wrote clearly worded books entitled Propaganda and Crystallizing Public Opinion. And that’s where I get to the point that this trade will not be a profession – an independent symmetric voice for the public inside institutions to do the kind of work Glenn M. Broom and David M. Dozier detailed in Using Research in Public Relations. But there is no money in that kind of Corporate Conscience work when you get crowded out of a market managed by an oligarchy of corporations, DSM IV qualified sociopathic. Better financially to play ball and those university students have debt to pay. http://earthisnotround.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/the-10-companies.jpg http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5hEiANG4Uk WHERE ARE OUR FEARLESS VOICES? They are not working for the three corporations that own 90% of the industry.

Anonymous
July 6th, 2014
6:07 PM
There is only one fact to back up all the assertions in this article; not well done. But, everyone gets to have an opinion in the free West.

andygreencreativity
July 6th, 2014
2:07 PM
Lively stirring up of debate here - and highlights the need for coherent, robust and relevant theory and definitions of what constitutes 'PR' and 'propaganda'. Can I alert you to an independent, not-for-profit global initiative which would help all sides in this debate, called #PRredefined. It currently covers issues such as 'truthiness', 'integrity' and 'values' and 'propaganda' and welcomes your input at wwww.prredefined.olrg

wtloild
July 3rd, 2014
3:07 PM
Fantastic piece on an point that doesn't get raised enough. I worked in local govt for 20yrs & the cancerous impact of this spin culture annoyed me throughout. However...I'll make one point in their defence - there are numerous instances where council clients go to the press attacking the authority with their very one-sided story, often a pack of lies, yet because of confidentiality rules, the council is unable to denounce those blatant untruths. I'd suggest that where an individual chooses to share their story, they then waive some right to confidentiality, and the public body can respond with the facts of the case.

Mary WillowAnonymous
July 3rd, 2014
2:07 PM
The problem is the definition of 'lie' is as difficult to pin down as a definition of 'truth' A witness under oath promises to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth- not simply to tell the 'truth'. PR is just PR speak for propaganda whenever its purpose is to deceive or mislead. If PR people had ever attended a Catholic primary school they would know from their catechism that it is perfectly possible to lie by omission and that St Peter at the pearly gates has no tick box for letting you off on a technicality.

Odysseus
July 2nd, 2014
12:07 PM
If Nick really wants to go to work on the industry - and why not? - he could do worse than to examine the relationship between PR agencies and their clients. This is where the real lying, manipulating, nest-feathering expertise of a PR comes into play. You journalists are only a poor second. Sorry mate!

Francis Ingham
June 30th, 2014
12:06 PM
When I read Nick Cohen’s article, I must confess it took me a little while to decide how to respond. I felt a little like a builder walking in a derelict house - the panoply of errors is so great as almost to cause inertia. Where on earth to begin? Prostitutes? Well that's a mighty strong statement. At a time when journalists are in the dock, it's a bold one too. Andy Coulson spent about four years in my profession - apparently blamelessly. He spent a couple of decades in Mr Cohen’s. Pestilential? I presume Nick’s investigative skills didn't reach back to one month ago and our victory versus the utterly and archetypally pestilential Newspaper Licensing Agency? And his whine that graduates now increasingly see PR as a career of choice? Well forgive me - I lecture on PR and advertising at a university. About half of my students are on the journalism course. They come to my sessions instead. Why? Because PR is growing, vibrant and fun. Because its practitioners earn roughly double a journalism salary. Because the UK is the global hub of PR excellence. Now let me say this. I feel compelled to retort because of his ignorance, but my industry is actually the biggest advocate of sting journalism. We want a powerful and well-resourced newspaper and media industry. We want multiple outlets for stories. We want national, regional and local newspapers to flourish. Ditto trade press. But we cannot be expected to ensure that happens. Journalism as a profession has to pull its weight. But none of that will happen with rants such as Mr. Cohen’s. Reading his piece, he sounds a little more like the caricature of an editor that you might see in Spiderman or Superman than a reasonable journalist making a case for his industry. Francis Ingham, Director General, Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA)

Anon
June 27th, 2014
11:06 AM
If PRs were named by whoever quotes them the lies would reduce drastically. The anonymity they enjoy is the fuel that allows them to lie.

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