Used to a servile media cowed by PR, the queen of spin was shocked by criticism coming from student journalists. Is the press in the process of growing new teeth?
I do not know where she does her professing. Perhaps she holds the Max Clifford chair of Modern Dissimulation at the University of Slithering-in-the-Mire, but I do know that she once graced with her presence a meeting of student journalists at the City University. And were they honoured? Were they appreciative? Reader, it gladdens my heart to say they were not. According to a report of the event, “they showed their resentment by peppering her with critical questions.” Her response was to shake her head sadly and murmur, “So young and already so cynical.” It was as though a deity was looking down from Mount Olympus and sorrowfully observing the folly of humankind.
But in this instance humankind had got it right. Those of us who are critical of media studies take comfort from the suspicion shown by the students. So young and already so smart. For cynicism is the sharpest weapon in the armoury of the journalist. By cynicism I mean having scant faith in the integrity of those set in power over us – politicians, judges, officialdom of all sorts – and still less in those whose purpose in life is to get something into the paper or on to the airwaves. An unnamed cynic, but one obviously steeped in journalism, famously said that news was something that someone, somewhere did not want to see printed – all the rest was advertising. In the media today there is too little news and too much advertising by another name.
Public relations was created in response to the power of the press. It was a recognition that newspapers, though fallible, were by and large trusted and capable, almost by chance and sometimes capriciously, of making and destroying reputations. PR sought to turn this strength in on itself by moulding and manipulating the press. From the very beginning, then, PR and journalism were in opposition to each other. But journalists, being cynics, took from PR the bits they liked and that were useful to them. The rest they discarded. In recent years, however, PR has grown in power. It is better organised, its strengths better marshalled. To the fury and indignation of journalists, PRs have become the hired gatekeepers of those in power, admitting only those who shout “Friend”. For their part, too many journalists are lazy, under pressure and with too much space to fill. Into those empty spaces pours the output of PR. If journalists are suspicious and resentful of PR it is partly through guilt.
If guilt is unpleasant, cowardice is worse. When Peter Mandelson was at his reptilian worst, browbeating journalists with the sibilant hiss, “I know your editor”, he should have been repulsed in the language of the lower deck, and any journalist found abusing New Labour’s spin doctor should have been given a pay rise, a commendation and a medal. Instead, the response was all too often a craven submission.
There are those, I know, who say that press and PR deserve each other and, in the words of Dr Johnson, there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea. At times, it is not easy to defend the British press. We have the most unpleasant tabloid newspapers in the world, in particular the Daily Chav edited by the flame-haired Jessica Crude, but the true test is one of dispensability.
A free press is the mark of a civil society without which the liberty of us all would be threatened. Why else is the first action of every newly enthroned despot to muzzle the media?
But what of PR? To borrow from that catchpenny poet and straw philosopher John Lennon, imagine a world without PR, it’s easy if you try. No chat show fodder; no Sunday supplement cover stories plugging books/films/shows but purporting to be profiles; no book signings; no one to talk to Richard and Judy; no fashion and lifestyle sections; no celebrity launches; no phoney surveys; no photocalls.
Public relations, in common with lifestyle gurus, counsellors, fitness coaches, personal shoppers, and faith healers, is one of those fluffy non-jobs that stick to the coat-tails of the service economy. True, PR keeps many otherwise unemployable young women with nice teeth and good manners in work, but a single cynical grin is worth a thousand plastic smiles.