Categories: Media issues / Political spin / Trust and reputations

2 December 2012

4 comments

PRs shouldn’t rush to welcome Leveson

PR professionals need to interrogate the Leveson report in great detail. That’s because there’s the possibility of another Dangerous Dogs-type Act coming on. In 1991 several high-profile outrages involving fighting dogs biting, maiming and killing babies and old folk were whipped up by the tabloids to create a moral panic. Then emotionally-incontinent parliamentarians rushed through draconian legislation. The result is now acknowledged to have been a disaster for public protection, dogs owners and justice (1).

But the Charted Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) has been precipitously cherry picking bits of Leveson’s report to endorse. Take this example:

The CIPR also supports the recommendation that police press officers be present at briefings and discussions between senior police officers and representatives of the media. This acknowledgement of the expertise and support provided by public relations professionals underlines the need for them to be accountable to a code of conduct as well. [see: CIPR statement on the Leveson Report]

However, if CIPR had taken a closer look at Leveson (or even reports of his near-2000-page report) they would have noted that he urged the media and PR to ban ‘off the record briefings’ from the lexicon. The phrase should be replaced, according to Leveson, by the term ‘non-reportable briefing’. This is a call for the state (or at best an independent non-statutory regulator with teeth) to police words, opinions and practice. As Dan Hodges noted in The Daily Telegraph, it throws up a host of worries:

Discontinued? By whom? Is he saying the press should reflect that in their copy? That to write “off-the-record” will be to breach the new statutory regulatory code? We’ve seriously reached the point where specific journalistic phrases are to be regulated? Utterly, utterly bonkers. [The Vichy Evening News, formerly known as The Guardian, has gone bonkers over Leveson]

Certainly, CIPR has not thought through the consequences of endorsing this particular recommendation. Are police officers really going to be prevented from saying anything to the media unless a press officer from the PR department is present? What if no press officer is around at a crime scene when the police need to get a message out immediately via the media in the interest of public safety?

As Hodges notes, many mundane practical issues of public and media relations were seemingly beyond Leveson’s comprehension:

 Leveson says that leaders, ministers and shadow ministers, and their “agents”, should publish “a fair and reasonably complete picture, by way of general estimate only”, of “correspondence, phone, text and email” communications with journalists. What’s a general estimate? What’s a reasonably complete picture? Is an aide to some shadow minister who rings me and says “You’re not going to believe what Ed Miliband’s done now” going to have to record that conversation and declare it? Bonkers.

Off the record briefings and the trust that they depend on (including providing the media unmediated access to senior executives) are mission-critical arts in PR-influenced relationships. Are we really prepared to abandon past practice just because a judge makes recommendations about things and relationships he barely understands?

Leveson has failed to grasp that anybody with a Twitter or Facebook account today is a journalist: hence to comply with his logic, PRs would need to be in on every contact with others, public or private, the police and many other officials have. That’s not least because, according to Edelman’s trust survey, people like us supposedly (though I along with Leveson doubt it) are much more trusted and influential than mainstream media.

Moreover, when CIPR backs Leveson on the grounds that his codes would make PRs accountable, it would seem they haven’t thought much about what we’d be accountable for. Is it note-taking and record-keeping? Or is it the veracity of what’s said and legal responsibility for its consequences? Are we to become de facto police officers? This is serious stuff worth thinking about before our professional bodies start endorsing Leveson’s detailed proposals.

What’s more, CIPR might have served the public interest (not mention PR’s and the media’s) better had it applied some scepticism to exposing Leveson’s own lack of frankness with words and definitions – which looks to me like his slippery way of avoiding accountability for them. Leveson claims that statutory underpinning ‘is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press’. That’s spin (as is his oxymoronic formulation “independent self-regulation”), and we should say so.

What Leveson means is that he proposes light-touch statutory regulation designed to make a mostly voluntary self-regulatory system an operational imperative for the media. The fact that he couldn’t say so clearly should raise eyebrows.

It’s also sad that the PR trade’s professional bodies are so keen to puff up our role in society that they cannot see the significance of the fact that PR and journalism are trades, not professions. Our work is not in the same class as that of lawyers and doctors, and cannot be regulated as if it were. Journalism and PR are knacks (not bodies of knowledge) that anybody can acquire or practice . Put another way, you don’t need (yet) a licence to open a Twitter or Facebook account or to launch a lobby group or to talk to the media of any sort.

No doubt, there are insights and recommendations in Leveson’s report worthy of our support, just as much as there are ones worthy of our scepticism. I’m not backing the status quo or defending bad practice or ethics. But my position hasn’t changed much from start to finish of the Leveson inquiry. My views were best put by an editorial in The New York Times entitled Press Freedom at Risk:

British newspapers operate in a harsher legal environment than the American press. They must navigate an Official Secrets Act, which criminalizes the publication of classified information and a plaintiff-friendly libel law, which lacks American-style exceptions for public figures. But they have been free from government licensing since 1694. A regulatory panel backed by law is a big step in the wrong direction.

Press independence is as essential a bulwark of political liberty in Britain as it is everywhere. That independence should not, and need not, be infringed upon now. Much of the conduct described in the report on Thursday — hacking into voice mail messages of ordinary citizens and illegally obtaining medical records — is not news gathering. They are illegal acts under British law. So are bribery, corrupt relations with police officials and political figures and other abuses attributed to the tabloid press.

That leads me to my main worry. We might end up with either a/ easily discredited and unthought-through so-called independent self-regualtion with unenforcible statutory legislation/underpinnings b/ discredited self-regualtion of trades and practices that are beyond anybody’s control.

Yes, these are thorny issues in ‘the internet age’ (a phrase I normally avoid), and dealing with them requires us to take our time and to stop panicking as we search for the moral high ground.

(1.) The Kennel Club’s preference is to scrap all current legislation (even though it’s been amended since 1991), And the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals has said the Act never worked: see
http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2005/nov/05/animalwelfare.world and http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/dangerous-dogs-act-has-never-worked-says-rspca-431905.html

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4 Responses to “PRs shouldn’t rush to welcome Leveson”

  1. peter walker says:

    Leveson was set up because of criminal behaviour by some of the media and some journalists. Strange that the report and enquiry was then dominated by those, the Dowling family excepted, who attempted, with some sucess to manipulate and manage the media to their own ‘celebrity’ or fund raising advantage.

    Stranger that Leveson’s report make no reference to the catalogue of laws that already cover the despicable behaviour by journalist, editors, police and owners representatives.
    Stranger still so little reference to the media corruption in the Police and prosecuting authoprities on the laws that exist and were broken and never prosecuted.

    Even stranger that just 75 words in the report cover the unragulated and deplorable behaviour of the collective of so called ‘citizen journalists’ , investigatory websites, and ‘twitterbased whistleblowers’

    Stangest of all is that the great bastion of pomposity and arrogance the BBC was not included in his overview.

    Not at all strange that CIPR submitted no papers or played no role in the enquiry or even found itself able to represent the profession to Lord Hunt in his search for a viable alternative to the complaint body that is the PCC. This is a body that doesn’t even seem to realise that it too has a regulator in the Privy Council. Someone should tell them that the uniformed officers pay little or no heed to any civilian press officer and brief according to their promotion chances.

    The Leveson enquiry showed the world of celebrity and the publicists that go with it for what they are.. corrupt and unscrupulos journalists for what they are, it also, sadly for a former President of the Instritution, showed CIPR and the PRCA – the consultants trade association to be ineffective at best and incompetent at worst.

    Cameron has perhaps recognised the need to use Leveson as the basis for a wider debate one that hopefully will take us to some form of constitutional gaurantee for the freedom of the press – a first ammendment, because then and only then can you regulate and apply standards against which which people can be measured in order to safeguard those rights… don’t hold your breath folks..
    PLW

  2. Karen Swim says:

    Paul, you present a very balanced and fair view of this situation. As the NYT editorial indicated the acts were illegal and had nothing to do with news gathering. Yet the knee jerk response is to sanction the associated industry with broad strokes that hinder professionals from doing their job and erode the credibility that we work so hard to build.

  3. Paul Seaman says:

    Karen, thanks. You too make your point well; moreover I agree with it.

  4. Phil Morgan says:

    Paul,
    Thanks for your comments – an interesting blog and good to see your views.
    When we said “This acknowledgement of the expertise and support provided by public relations professionals underlines the need for them to be accountable to a code of conduct as well” we were refering to our own code of conduct, which requires professionals to deal honestly with the public. We’re not talking about any other codes but the ones that are available to hold professionals in public relations to account.

    The recommendation in the report was specifically when policy or organisational matters are being discussed, not, as you point out, for on the spot, crime scene press handling. This would appear to support the idea put forward later that police officers and staff should communicate within their area of competence, responsibly and where there is a policing reason for doing so.

    I think you may be over reading our comment about the professional accountability of those working in public relations into Leveson’s comments about ‘off-the-record’. It seems to me that his call for a change in terminology is to reduce confusion about the relationships through which information is conveyed to the press. It wasn’t our intention to endorse this and our position is at best neutral. Simple steps that increase transparency, particularly in sensitive areas of media relations, should be welcomed.

    It will come as no surprise that I disagree with your assessment of PR as a trade – which, if it remains so, is certainly moving towards professionalisation. Accountability to a code of conduct is currently as close to a licence to operate as public relations has got, but it is available and it would at least underline expected standards of professional conduct if more people operating in this area were accountable.

    More generally, whether it’s statutory or non-statutory, the resulting regulatory structure is unlikely to account for the rise in digital communication or the fragmentation of media that is rapidly taking place. The business model that supports journalism is struggling to put it mildly and it seems to me unlikely that the newspaper industry in 10 years time will resemble the one we have at the moment.