This is a post about a systemic failure in our media organisations when it comes to reporting, and it has nothing to do with Rupert Murdoch or plagiarism.
It starts in Soho and ends in Syria. If you’re a journalist, you’ll probably know it already, so apologies – though a couple of events recently, one of which I’ll cover below, have made me wonder just how many of us know either. I really only decided to rattle this out after realising, in the wake of the News International phone-hacking brouhaha and the case of Johann Hari, that certain things many in the media take for granted are both new to, and potentially quite unacceptable to, the broad public.
We can start off in the shallow end. In a past life, I worked (briefly) in the music press. Briefly for three reasons. First, the music press just isn’t the place for would-be investigative journalists. And the mid-2000s, when the record companies funding it were feeling the pinch and just wanted boosters, was probably not the time either.
Second, famous musicians and singers, let alone their handlers, tend to be terribly dull. They’re like footballers, brand people or – on this tragi-comic evidence – Ed Milliband. They have a party line, are petrified of the perceived power of the press to misquote/misrepresent. This makes them uptight, careerist, bland and repetitive. Only the odd one here or there is confident, experienced or chippy enough to throw caution to the wind and engage in any kind of genuine discussion. In that one respect (though I imagine there might be others, and I shiver) Marilyn Manson was a bit like Joey Barton.
But the third reason was the most dispiriting of all, and provides one neon-lit clue as to why sales of music magazines have dropped through the floor even faster than those of mags in many other sectors. Whatever you think of music reviewers (and I certainly did), at least one never used to doubt their sincerity. The knowledge that drunken arguments could be fought, friendships broken and alliances formed over the precise tone of a single album review, their agonies of integrity, their desultory pay and Keep The Aspidistra Flying existences, were salutary somehow. Reminders that they could be trusted.
Only, in the end, they couldn’t. Things changed, and by 2004, it wasn’t unusual for a call to the office (names changed of course) to go like this.
Record company guy: Hi John? Yeah, yeah, hi. Listen, Susie tells me you’re reviewing the [insert band name here] record. So, whaddyathink?
Reviewer: Well, I, um, I mean it’s OK. It’s probably two to three stars, to be honest; I mean, it’s a bit of a disappointment, but there are a couple of good…
Record company guy: OK, so here’s the thing. This is a big record for these guys, I mean you know the score what with last year’s reshuffle at the company, and they’re really bouncing back – I mean, feeling here about it is very big. It’s gotta be big.
Reviewer: What can I tell you? It’s three out of five tops, I honestly can’t give it more than that.
Record company guy: Right, right. Only I know we’ve got [insert name of global superstar band/singer]‘s big album coming up in September, and I’m going to call your publisher and say that this really isn’t the kind of sympathetic environment we can place the cover story I know you guys need from us. So let’s say you give this four stars…
And so on. The conversation would often end badly, the reviewer would cling to his integrity, the editor would make soothing noises to the reviewer about not having to change his copy, and then the publisher (the guy who deals with the ads and holds the budget) would come and meet the editor, and then a more positive review would run. (Think back to the last major comeback from an established star. The review told you that yes, they’d been in the doldrums and the past few albums had been poor, water-treading exercises. But this was their best since their landmark album X. Not for years have they had so much energy, drive, creative spark etc. So you bought the record, and it was rubbish. And then you remembered, hadn’t the past few albums been reviewed in exactly the same terms, peddling exactly the same line. Now sigh.)
Creeping grey goo
This grey goo of PR- and lobby-driven content clogging up the channels (person A reports something they believe to be true to person B, only to have person C intercept and subvert the message) is something we might expect in the entertainment journalism world, where everybody has to cozy up and celebrities are the plucked’n'primped magic geese nobody wants to kill.
But if the recent scandals around News International, phone hacking, Harigate, ‘blagging’ and the fall of the House of Murdoch has proven anything, it’s how naïve we are about how our agendas and messages, are clogged and subverted by the same goo. (One might point out that the Government’s own agenda has been similarly clogged; only for a record company calling a reviewer, read a red-top editor calling a ministerial aide.)
Yet for all that it happens in countless newsrooms and reports every day, nobody talks, much less writes, about it.
One problem is that, while phone hacking makes great, name-driven headlines (Brooks! Clifford! Sienna! Cameron! Coogan!), and the shoddy work of Johann Hari became the lightning conductor of the whole plagiarism/cut/paste debate, the creeping grey goo of PR influence lacks a focal point.
The other problem is of course that pretty much everyone in the media rank and file (and I can think of dozens of reasons to include myself in that) is in some way complicit.
Perhaps the most worrying thing is that those who may not be complicit – good, honest people the people at the very top of the journalistic tree whose fame and authority puts them in a position to make a difference – appear not to have a clue. They are like the tyrant in the Russian fable who asked his footman why every single town and village his country smelled of fresh paint. Yesterday, in a tweet that (judging by the replies and retweets) many lower down the journalistic food chain appear to have felt was a spoof, renowned campaigning journalist George Monbiot (@GeorgeMonbiot) tweeted the following thundering outburst: “Samsung: did you authorize your PR people to try to bribe journalists to promote your products? Is this standard practice?”
Cue hollow laughter. (It gets hollower.)
How to kill a story, drown a protest, or start a coup
OK, chest cleared. We all know (except dear George M) most of our our pages and channels are taken up with bought, pushed or donated PR content, one way or another. Nearly every report you see from Somalia, Pakistan, or any war- famine-hit or disaster-zone comes courtesy of an “embedded” reporter. Embedded means they are there as the guest of an organisation on the ground – usually an aid or military organisation. This is a popular choice for reporters for many reasons. Chief among them is that the organisation on the ground has armoured 4x4s, secure accommodation and interpreters, and travelling unembedded means going alone and unsupported. But it’s also because when you travel embedded, most of the costs will usually be picked up by the organisation hosting you. The reason for this is that they can help form the reporter’s story. Go with NGO A and you will see what that NGO considers it important you see. Go with the UN and you will gain a valuable insight into their operations, and their agenda. This will become your story. And because of this, the real story – as in Somalia – goes unreported. The reason for the conflict, the famine, remains obscure. And nothing changes. But at least the paper, broadcaster or magazine saves budget.
But even this is relatively innocent. Only a fool would claim the UN or aid organisations wanted to obscure the root causes of the conflict or catastrophe, even if it is often a by-product of their methods.
What I really want to talk about is the other kind of purpose-built PR-driven content that not only swamps lifestyle coverage, but is beginning to – or at least trying to – to dictate the hard news agenda.
A friend of mine worked for many years as a PR without ever giving away a freebie or inviting anyone to the races. His job was to be a story killer, and story killing is one of the fastest growing sectors in the media.
How does it work? Easy. A client of yours has a vested interest, a secret or a cause. Someone else – a rival, ex-lover, politicians, the law, anyone – is about to go public in opposition to it. You generate “volume”. Not a counterargument necessarily, not a rebuttal, but volume. Noise. It might be noise about them, or about their cause, or a case study showing (anecdotally of course) that your way is best. It might even be noise about something completely different, which you’re pretty sure will create enough confusion or uncertainty (or just make the subject bothersome enough for researchers) that the original story no longer feels clear. It will be dropped, or postponed, which amounts to the same thing. You have killed your story: polluted its access channels with low-quality blather.
Even the way news is commissioned and debates are structured plays into the hands of this invisible sector of ‘private suppliers’ of content – PRs, lobbyists or pressure groups. The (otherwise excellent) Al-Jazeera has a policy of giving equal weight to all voices on the political spectrum, summed up in the channel’s motto: “The opinion. And the other opinion.” It tends to mean, as British journalist Hugh Miles details in his exhaustively researched book on the channel, that producers of a report on, say, lunar geology are compelled to seek equally weighted contributions from those who say the moon is made of cheese, we never went there anyway, and/or it’s an affront against God. In the quest for balance and fairness, truth and objectivity are lost.
Closer to home, screenwriter and microblogger Graham Linehan recently laid into the BBC Radio 4 flagship news programme Today for its attempt to (as he saw it) ambush him with an opposing voice, and turn an interview about a new play he’d written into an oppositional dialogue more suited to political campaigning. Elsewhere, Bad Science campaigner Ben Goldacre has detailed many hundreds of instances in which journalists, editors and producers give a platform to quacks, fraudsters and chartalans peddling misleading and often downright dangerous “alternative” views on medicine in the name of editorial balance.
Of course, those behind the format are mostly well-meaning enough. In these times of balanced coverage, they want to avoid accusations of bias; of spouting the official, or “establishment” line and denying dissenters a voice. (Though there is also the slightly harder-nosed motivation that by including more viewpoints and speakers in any discussion, you get to pull in more viewers/listeners/readers, be more SEO friendly, and get more talked about by more interest groups. Again, just like the music press really: if you have an R’n'B coverstar, you’d damn well better make garage rock your main supporting story, and vice-versa).
But while the motivations behind the format may be innocent, those of the parties who exploit this tendency in the format are sometimes less so. When the Chinese authorities censored media coverage in the wake of the recent disastrous Weizhou high-speed train crash, microbloggers using Sina Weibo, one of the two services analogous to Twitter, quickly found ways to outstrip and erode the censors’ blackouts and DDOS. A Google search this morning for weibo train crash threw up first one, then three reports from large media channels – the Financial Times, the New York Times and the Globe and Mail – as top results. Beneath them, however, were two ‘reports’ from China Media Communications, a “Social media blog covering latest trends and news from Chinese cyberspace”. This news site’s reports deflate and deflect critiques of the Chinese authorities, playing on claims of Western media bias against poor China, and western bloggers waiting only for a chance to attack China itself, rather than showing genuine concern for the victims. One concludes: “Of course the reason for the crash has be be identified and addressed but [...] shouldn’t we be looking beyond criticism of China?”
I saw it, and it seemed odd that this report from an unknown news portal, in which there were precious few facts and not much news, could remain at the top of the Google rankings for so many days as a corrective to the “criticism of China” in the biased old Western FT and New york Times. In fact, the site appears to be an astroturf blog – that is, a site run by a larger organisation to gove the impression of ‘grass-roots’ blogging – from a London-based company called Newland Public Relations, whose client base is largely Chinese, and in no small measure government related. They offer many media and PR services, among them crisis communications, Government communications, media briefings, media monitoring, online crisis management, political strategy, and social media management and monitoring. It’s tempting to speculate on its motives, and the reasons for its oddly high ranking. What is beyond doubt is the way its claim the water. Not a great deal; just enough to create a plurality of angles; to create babble, or debate, around events following the train crash and what appears to be a ham-fisted media crackdown by the Chinese authorities.
And if Newland PR has been commissioned by a government to disrupt criticism, it would not be alone. Those trying to follow events unfolding in Syria on Twitter by following the #Syria hashtag of late will have noticed two things: first, virtual busloads of trolls arriving to abuse, mock and threaten anyone tweeting on the revolution there. Second, the arrival of spambots, clogging the hashtag with useless and nonsensical chatter and slogans, to the point where timelines are polluted and people switch off. According to an excellent investigation published this month by Global Voices Online, the trolls are the work of pro-Assad security service operatives; the second, of a Bahrain-based PR company, Eghna Developement and Support, which claims to provide “political campaign solutions.” Their accounts (there are several) tweet every two minutes under the hashtag in what appears to be an attempt to drown out the hashtag with spam. Anas Qtiesh, the Global Voices investigator, reports: “Instead of generating bad PR by blocking websites or solely relying on going after online activists [...] the regime at first attempted bullying and intimidation online by seemingly independent twitter accounts [...] Now, they are effectively diluting the discussion and making it much harder to find any info about the protests by bombarding the popular relevant hash tags with badly disguised spam.”
You’ll recognize the tactic from the smoking lobby (whose mock-constructive “We need more research” stalled anti-smoking measures for decades) and the alternative medicine crew.
While I was writing Outlaws Inc., I came across a report entitled “Ras Al-Khaimah: A Rogue State Within The UAE?” published by US lobbying and PR firm Mercury Communications LLC. The report attempted to ‘link’ the current rulers of the tiny Emirate with nefarious plots in Iran, alleged Russian gunrunner Viktor Bout, and much more besides. It looked the part, and was taken up by the US media. Its release coincided with the illegal extradition of Bout, aka “The Merchant of Death” to New York to face gunrunning charges. For Ras Al-Khaimah – a pretty peaceful minnow emirate, with whom the US has enjoyed good relations for many years – a very public link to guys like this, in the minds of US media and congressmen, was a disaster. It should come as no surprise that the report was issued on behalf of on behalf of its foreign principal His Highness Sheikh Khalid bin Saqr Al Qasimi, and that the Sheikh is a disgruntled member of the Emirate’s royal family, who believes the throne to be rightfully his.
The report was full of vague, self-referential links, assertions that didn’t stand up, and rumour that appeared in precious few other places. I called Mercury LLC repeatedly for more than a month to try and get some background on their report, but they consistently stonewalled before apparently panicking and denying they’d distributed the release. (Guys, take your letterhead off next time.)
Still, it won’t surprise you if I tell you that the report was taken at face value quite a lot – at least until The Guardian looked closely and found it to be an attempt to generate US backing for a coup the deposed Sheikh and his PR team were planning. They needed to ensure that, if they mounted the coup, just enough fuzziness, enough grey goo and white noise had been created around the incumbent regime, that the US would hold off intervening. Judgement would be suspended. the two-star thumbs-down would become a non-committal three or four.
This noise, in the end, takes away the very notion of consensus, let alone unanimity. Reporting a popular movement, a fact or an event is very different to reporting a clamour, a debate, noise around a topic. Editors sense the absence of a story, and either stay away or suspend coverage until a clear ‘good guy’ emerges.
Of course, the fact that I’m writing this about the Chinese and Syrian incidents mean that noise doesn’t always work. Nor does compromise. But it works enough of the time to be worth trying. After all, it’s a good story sells. But not always a true one.