Marketers must share blame for the loss of trust in media

I was tempted to write about Heather Mills-McCartney but, like everybody else, I am sick of anything she has to say about anything. Who can believe what she feels or portrays through the media, when her courtroom bid to purloin The Beatles’ treasures is so ruthlessly executed?

Then, Daily Mirror editor Richard Wallace told me that the possible breakdown of the public’s trust in the news and news organisations was on the agenda of a recent Society of Editors conference.

This set me thinking and gave me my chance to put another spin on the Mills-McCartney story in the context of the news in general, and why it may result in some unfortunate consequences for advertising and marketing for years to come.

The thread of my argument relies on following a trail of seemingly separate news incidents covered in the media over the past few years. Marketing and advertising, in particular, have had their part to play in exacerbating this situation by blurring the line between real news and commercialism.

Rewind to the Jeffrey Archer case and his disgrace and custodial sentence. As chairman of the Conservative Party, he was exposed as a liar who misled the country. Going back not so far when Kate Moss was dropped by her sponsors following the emergence of photographic evidence of one of her cocaine binges. In both cases we appeared to be witnessing society punishing the wrongdoers by casting them aside.

Yet in no time at all, or so it felt, both Archer and Moss were snapped up to star in ad campaigns flaunting these indiscretions, For Archer it was the launch of In the Know magazine (poetically this has since folded), and for Moss, Virgin Mobile.

So much for punishment. The message coming across was that if you do bad things, you can go on to make a million. Marketing has been a ready conspirator in this, helping to blur what represents the truth and what is ultimately credible.

The public was then faced with the terrible story of Natasha Kampusch, a teenager kidnapped and incarcerated for years by her captor in Austria, denied her liberty until her escape as a 19 year old. A wave of outrage and sympathy was felt across the world until it transpired that Kampusch had exited with her lawyers, media advisors and a lucrative film deal in place
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Was it news, or an elaborate movie trailer we were watching?

Then we have Gerry and Kate McCann and the tragic marathon of Madeleine’s disappearance. Conspiracy theories have been featured almost every day and a relentless tirade with her parents at its centre, admittedly fuelled by a vacuum of actual facts and an extraordinarily expert PR effort by a desperate family trying to find their daughter.

However, the Daily Express in particular appears to be using this story as a Diana replacement tactic in the war to sell copies at any cost, and that is a dubious practice in my view when exploited on this scale.

The rigging of voting for game shows and the involvement of a generational cornerstone of Britain such as Blue Peter was a hammer blow for anyone who’s ever been awarded a Blue Peter badge (I got one for an art competition). Both ITV and BBC being implicated in what was, at best, sloppy and at worst fraudulent behaviour, has done nothing to reassure the public’s confidence in organisations that should be beyond reproach.

Every reader competition in every magazine or anyone involved in the emerging genre for interactive TV programmes or marketing techniques is now undermined by this, not to mention the sources of the news themselves.

When Piers Morgan was forced to leave the Mirror after the falsification of war photographs, I was outraged. I thought that was normal behaviour for the tabloids and that he was unlucky to be the scapegoat.

I thought the same when Andy Coulson was driven from the News of the World after the Royal mobile phone tapping scandal last year.

But I have changed my view.

It was absolutely essential that action be taken as the integrity of the news is all that we have left to trust at the moment. That surely cannot be allowed to be treated on the same level as an Ant and Dec phone-in show.

Mills-McCartney’s histrionics on GMTV comparing herself to the McCanns and Diana were pathetic, and her vitriol aimed at the media was savage. But instead of ignoring the rants of a derailed person, the press has fuelled the flames and persevered with giving her space to thrash about in.

I never thought I would hear myself saying this, but I believe that for the good of the confidence of the nation, and for the future wellbeing of our own industry, the press may need better regulation and even more self-control.

From our parochial point of view in marketing, if “the medium is the message” but the medium becomes worthless, then our message will become worthless as well.

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