Beware the Few

The newspapers received the elevation of Perkins with unprecedented hysteria. “Go back to Moscow,” screamed the Sun, unable to come to terms with the fact that ‘Red Harry’ (as the papers insisted on calling him) had never actually set foot in Moscow… in the run-up to polling… newspapers published lists of ‘Communist-backed’ Labour candidates. By way of evidence they offered an article in the Morning Star or a platform shared by a Labour MP and a member of the Communist Party. A week before election day… newshounds ‘discovered’ documents purporting to show that four senior Labour leaders were paid-up members of a Trotskyist cell.

Not to be outdone, the Express took to publishing a picture of Perkins daubed with a Hitler moustache… Another paper splashed on its front page an internal Labour Party document outlining plans to abolish tax relief on mortgages and confiscate all personal wealth over £50,000. Enquiry revealed that the document was a forgery, but the retraction was tucked away at the bottom of an inside page.[i]

The passage above is from the novel, ‘A Very British Coup,’ by the former Labour MP, Chris Mullin. Though published in 1982 and dated, it’s a stingingly prescient work that, if Labour forms the next government, should become required reading for anyone who still harbours any affection for democracy. The novel was a success and, later, playwright Alan Plater wrote a (loose) adaptation for Channel Four.

CorbynPutinStoogeIn his opus, Mullin imagines the various phases of an establishment coup mounted in response to the election of a socialist government led by his protagonist, newly minted Labour PM Harry Perkins. Naturally, Mullin portrays the corporate media as one of the principal fronts in his imaginary battle between democracy and the state and, last month, I touched on this subject when I argued that it is foolish to believe that a genuinely socialist Labour Party could win over the corporate capitalist media. One has only to look at the batterings meted out to Labour under Foot, Kinnock, ‘Red Ed’ Miliband, and Corbyn to see the entirely understandable hostility of private power to anything other than the mildest social democracy.[ii] New Labour, which was substantially (though in fairness not totally) a capitulation to neoliberalism, received a much fairer wind; particularly from the Murdoch press.

The establishment campaign to destroy the Corbyn project, which is currently veiled as a furore over antisemitism, began before he was elected when, in July 2015, senior Labour MPs briefed the press that ‘Corbyn would never be allowed to remain in the job long enough to fight the 2020 general election’ and that ‘a coup could be launched within days of the result.’[iii] Three years later, for all its digging, the establishment has so far found very little to work with, as the paucity of the ‘scandals’ so far illustrate. When your enemy is cropping photos to make it CorbynJigMaillook like you’re dancing at the Cenotaph, you know their battery’s down to one bar. The insinuations and allegations concerning Corbyn’s associations with Sinn Fein and Hamas before the 2017 election fell flat, especially with younger voters, for whom the 80s are not even a memory. Indeed, such was the failure that many were tempted to see it as another portent of the collapse of redtop influence.[iv] This year, allegations that Corbyn was a Kremlin agent, a traitor, or a Czech spy proved so obviously absurd that even Andrew Neil bridled at them, demolishing the Brexit Minister, Steve Baker, in an interview so bloody it could have been directed by Eli Roth.

Inevitably, if Labour win the next election, the media will gain new material. Instead of rummaging through Corbyn’s bins, they’ll be able to blame everything that goes wrong in the country on Labour and on him (and sometimes they may actually be right to do so). As with Corbyn’s election as leader, the media will show scant regard for fairness, honesty or intellectual self-respect. And this will be only one front. In office, a Labour government will find itself having to fight on a much broader battlefield if it also wants to be in power.

LabourSpiesIt’s easy to forget how much any government relies on consent: not merely that of an electorate it has to win over every five years but rival power centres that it has to win over every day. It’s easy to confuse ‘the government’ with the wider apparatus of the state.  It’s worth us remembering exactly what a Labour Government would be in actual physical terms: approximately 120 people running twenty-five ministerial departments.[v] That would be the Labour Government: 120 people. Add to that a further 20 non-ministerial departments and 300+ executive agencies of one sort or another; all of which is staffed mostly by the 560,000 civil servants. Think of 120 people against that. And that of course is just the formal government. To this, we must add all the other centres of power in the country – the finance sector, large multinational corporations (and their media arms), and even the diminished but still influential trades unions. The Government for the Many against the (not so) Few.

And we live now in an incomparably more globalised world with far faster CorbynCollaboratorcommunication than that envisaged by Chris Mullin. Internationally, we are subject to the ‘virtual senate’ of investors and lenders, who ‘conduct moment-by-moment referendums’ on government policies;[vi] what the press refers to euphemistically as ‘the markets’. Capital is capable of ‘staging a general political strike’ against the policies of any nation, with even the US not immune from its ‘veto power.’[vii] A number of studies have shown that ‘the markets’ punish left wing governments and reward right wing administrations. The reason for this is obvious: ‘the probability of policies that are harmful for returns on investments increases under left governments, while right governments are more likely to choose policies that are beneficial for financial returns.’[viii] In other words, financial institutions punish any government that puts people over profit.

I’d argue that much of what is commonly portrayed as the competence of a government is, in reality, the degree to which other actors within the system play ball. Once Labour is in office, its enemies will have countless opportunities to jam the mechanisms of the state and frustrate Labour’s mandate. We’ve already seen the drama acted out on the smaller stage of the Labour Party itself, when Corbyn found himself in office but not in power; a predicament described by his political biographer, Alex Nunns:

The staff wore black for the day of the result… There was minimal help for the new leader — the campaign’s press officer James Mills had to organise an impromptu round of media interviews. There was no car arranged to transport Corbyn through the thronging streets… On member of staff approached Mills and said: “See those three files over there? That’s how the Labour Party works. See you Monday morning.”[ix]

CorbynLungeIndeed, we saw a foreshadowing of the likely problems ahead in September 2015, when an anonymous ‘senior general’ briefed that a Corbyn government would face a mutiny if it ‘tried to scrap Trident, pull out of NATO or announce “any plans to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces.”’[x] It’s no secret that Labour are conducting strategy sessions to, as John McDonnell put it, ‘answer the question about what happens when, or if, they [the establishment] come for us.’ In the first instance, that will very likely take the form of a TimesRussiaSwingrun on the pound (currency traders selling the pound so that its value against other currencies drops) or sudden capital flight (people pulling their money out of the country).[xi] In the longer run, there will be a steady war of attrition between a Labour government and institutions that have a vested interest in obstructing even Corbyn’s comparatively mild programme of social democracy. Increased propaganda against the domestic (and foreign) population, non-cooperation, and active sabotage: power protects itself.

Finally, while I’ve concerned myself here with institutions, allow me to suggest that theseExistential Threat are not the fundamental enemy that the Corbyn project faces. That is the class identity, values, and interests shared by that tranche of society we call ‘the establishment’. The institutions are merely the semi-permanent expression of the establishment, accumulated over decades and centuries.  The substance is the people — they are the bricks that make up the buildings, bound by the cement of their common ideology. We might demolish the buildings but the bricks themselves scatter and slot themselves into new buildings (or parties). The longer struggle of socialism will always be to bring about a change in collective wisdom: a ‘battle for hearts and minds’ (but without the bombing). That will take time and the battle for the buildings is a necessary step in winning the war for the bricks. It’s vital that Labour and its supporters don’t under estimate this challenge. Getting elected is not the summit but a foothill on the journey. I’ll leave you with some words Chris Mullin gave to Harry Perkins, which could be as true the morning after the next election as they were in 1982:

All we have won tonight is political power… [b]y itself that is not enough. Real power in this country resides not in Parliament, but in the boardrooms of the City of London; in the darkest recesses of the Whitehall bureaucracy and in the editorial offices of our national newspapers. To win real power we have first to break the stranglehold exerted by the ruling class on all the important institutions of our country.[xii]

Notes

___________________

[i] Chris Mullin (1982) ‘A Very British Coup,’ Hodder & Stoughton pp. 44-45.

[ii] The treatment of Tony Blair was far kinder, as I discussed in my previous article. John Smith was leader only two years before his untimely death at 55.

[iii] Tim Ross and Emily Gosden, ‘Jeremy Corbyn Faces Coup Plot if He Wins Labour Leadership,’ The Telegraph, 27th July 2015, available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/11764159/Jeremy-Corbyn-faces-coup-plot-if-he-wins-Labour-leadership.html (accessed 03/09/18); The Guardian reports that ‘ [The] argument about antisemitism in the party threatens to turn into a battle over its future…’ neatly reversing the actual events, in which the battle by the Labour right to wrest control of the Party back from the membership has recently morphed into an antisemitism-flavoured souffle (Dan Sabbagh ‘Antisemitism row: Hodge and Brown pile pressure on Corbyn,’ The Guardian 2nd September 2018, available at https://amp.theguardian.com/news/2018/sep/02/margaret-hodge-jeremy-corbyn-problem-labour-antisemitism-crisis (accessed 03/09/18).

[iv] See, for example, Suzanne Moore ‘The Sun and Mail tried to crush Corbyn. But their power over politics is broken, The Guardian 9th of June 2017, available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/09/tabloids-crush-corbyn-power-politics-sun-mail-labour (accessed 03/09/18). Steven Barnett reports that ‘commentators, pollsters, politicians and voters alike, some media pundits were quick to pronounce the end of tabloid power. “This election proves that media bias no longer matters” announced Peter Preston, suggesting that while the printed press “has seldom seemed more overwhelming” in its pro-Tory bias, 2017 heralded the final supremacy of social media over the dinosaurs of the printed press. Veteran media commentator Ray Snoddy also proclaimed “the decline in power and influence of the right-wing tabloids”. Nonetheless, Barnett cautions that this judgement may be ‘simplistic’ (Steven Barnett ‘Is our national press a fading dinosaur? Don’t bank on it’ in Einar Thorsen, Daniel Jackson, Darren Lilleker (eds) (2017) UK Election Analysis 2017: Media, Voters and the Campaign, p. 55.

[v] I’m basing this on the assumption that a Labour government would be broadly the same size and configuration as the current one, which is described (in fairly ‘Janet & John’ terms) here: https://www.gov.uk/government/how-government-works

[vi] Two phrases from the economics literature used frequently by Noam Chomsky, for example in his ‘The high cost of neoliberalism,’ The Spectator 28th June 2010, available at  https://www.newstatesman.com/south-america/2010/06/chomsky-democracy-latin (accessed 02/09/18).

[vii] Timothy A. Canova, ‘The Transformation of U.S. Banking and Finance: From Regulated Competition to Free-Market Receivership,’ Brooklyn Law Review Vol. 60 No. 4 Winter 1995, pp. 1295-1354.

[viii] Thomas Sattler, ‘Do Markets Punish Left Governments?’ The Journal of Politics 75, no. 2 (2013): 343-56. In Sattler’s study, he qualifies this central assertion by demonstrating that the reaction of markets to left governments depends on their assessment of how otherwise constrained that government is. In other words, a left government that has little room to operate will not be punished so heavily as one with more latitude.

[ix] Alex Nunns (2016 [2018]) “The Candidate. Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power,” OR Books, London.

[x] Caroline Mortimer, ‘British Army ‘could stage mutiny under Corbyn’, says senior serving general,’ The Independent 20th September 2015, available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/british-army-could-stage-mutiny-under-corbyn-says-senior-serving-general-10509742.html#comments (accessed 02/09/18).

[xi] Jim Pickard, ‘Labour plans for capital flight or run on pound if elected,’ Financial Times 26th September 2017, available at https://www.ft.com/content/e06aa3a6-a2c5-11e7-b797-b61809486fe2 (accessed 02/09/18).

[xii] Mullin (1982) p. 10.

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Let Truth and Falsehood Grapple

In my previous article on Public Relations, I mentioned the social justification often touted as the rationale for the trade; namely to ‘ethically and effectively plead the cause of a client or organization in the freewheeling forum of public debate.’[1] As one former head of the Institute of Public Relations argued, PR professionals see themselves as paid advocates, representing the interests of their principal.[2] Indeed, Edward Bernays spoke of the PR counsellor pleading his client’s case before the ‘court of public opinion’ and, with characteristic outrecuidance, coined the term ‘Public Relations Counsellor.’[3] Such legalistic allusions pepper his writings and the PR literature generally.

A second purported purpose for PR, which Bernays and others have claimed, is that it lubricates the cogs of democracy. Lesly’s Handbook argues that PR is an ‘essential element in the communications system that informs individuals on many aspects of subjects that affect their lives’ and a ‘safety valve for freedom.’[4] Not only that but it ‘provides a means by which the public communicates its desires and interests to the institutions in our society. It interprets and speaks for the public to otherwise unresponsive organizations, while also speaking for those organizations to the public.’[5] I shan’t belabour the question of what happens when the public tries to communicate desires and interests that don’t involve purchasing decisions.

The problem with democracy, as Robert Dahl argued, is complexity. Simply put, the general public cannot have a competent grasp of the intricacies of every issue of concern. All that is practicable is a passing acquaintance with the majority of policy issues and a somewhat deeper understanding of perhaps a handful. The formal remedy to this problem is for the electorate to set broad parameters of both ends and means, which are gradually refined, at each stage, by legislatures, policy committees, and administrative bodies.[6] This democratic gearing mechanism is embraced and developed in some of the PR literature. Bernays, for instance, believed that society needed people like him to sort through ideas and reduce the otherwise baffling plethora of options to a manageable choice.[7] Therefore, we consent to let an ‘invisible government sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issues so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions.’[8]

Society, then, is a courtroom in which competing ideas, programmes, and interests are debated in the cause of The Greater Good with PR practitioners on every side looking to persuade we, the jury, to find in their favour. As John Milton said of ‘Truth’, ‘let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?’[9] There are of course many instances when PR is in Truth’s corner, for instance last year when Pepsi and New Balance found themselves sparring with both pro- and anti-Trump news sites.[10] Unfortunately, when the encounters are so often neither free nor open, Truth takes a beating.

I’m going to discuss two sides to this problem. Firstly, the disparity between corporate PR and its opponents; secondly, the disadvantage the public finds itself at when trying to decide between competing ideas.

smoke-screen-camelsTo anyone who’s read my previous posts on the great US campaigns of the 20th century, the power and technique of corporate PR will be no surprise. Recall the Committee on Public Information’s 75,000,000 publications and more than $30m of advertising in service of selling the Great War or, later, the National Association of Manufacturing’s ‘almost overwhelming propaganda of doctrine’ to sell the American Dream. Nor is mere marketing communication the only tool in the PR locker. Take for example Edelman’s advice to TransCanada in 2014 that they launch a ‘perpetual campaign to protect and enhance the value of the Energy East Pipeline and to help inoculate TransCanada from potential attacks in any arena’. This plan, in service of the then stalled[11] Keystone XL pipeline, was to be an ‘aggressive’ campaign to ‘add layers of difficulty for our opponents, distracting them from their mission and causing them to redirect their resources.’ The targets of this ‘pressure’ campaign, which would include detailed investigation and background research, would be opposition groups, such as the Council of Canadians and the David Suzuki Foundation, as well as a ‘small community group in Ottawa that usually fights for more bike lanes and park enhancements.’[12] This case is quite typical of the mobilisation of resources involved in large scale corporate PR when public opposition is anticipated.[13]

Big business has more money, more time, more persistence, more connections, more experience and more resources that private citizens. The residents opposed to a local fracking application or an incinerator or a new road will have limited funds, either their own or donated. They will have their own lives, families, and jobs. Where big business can lobby government, individuals can only petition. Over time, a war of attrition can erode their finances, their commitment, their relationships, and their health. Not always. But often.[14] Legal remedies often provide at best pyrrhic victories with fines that aren’t large enough to effectively constrain behaviour making prosecutions merely an annoyance. Note the remarkable elision here, for instance, in a discussion of PR best practice in Managing Activism:

‘Through its experiences, this company has learnt that openness is a must. Because it operates in a ‘heavy industry’, it is occasionally prosecuted.’[15]

The other key way in which PR nobbles the jury is through its liberal use of what is known as the Third Party Technique, which has been described as ‘the heart of public relations’ and was pioneered during the promotion of tobacco.[16] Edelman, for instance,  told TransCanada that it would ‘work with third parties and arm them with the information they need to pressure opponents and distract them from their mission . . . . Third-party voices must be identified, recruited and heard to build an echo chamber of aligned voices.’[17] The Third Party Technique can involve suborning individuals thought to have authority or credibility with an audience or manufacturing ‘front groups’ or fake grassroots groups (a practice known as ‘astroturfing’),

Thus, if Burger King were to report that a Whopper is nutritious, informed consumers would probably shrug in disbelief…. And if the NutraSweet Company were to insist that the artificial sweetener aspartame has no side effects, consumers might not be inclined to believe them, either…. But if the ‘American Council on Science and Health’ and its panel of 200 ‘expert’ scientists reported that Whoppers were not so bad, consumers might actually listen…. And if the ‘Calorie Control Council’ reported that aspartame is not really dangerous, weight-conscious consumers might continue dumping the artificial sweetener in their coffee every morning without concerns.[18]

As a Communications Services manager for Burson-Marsteller told an advertising conference in 1995, third party support is essential for the ‘basic risk messages of the corporation’ and this support should ‘ideally come from medical authorities, political leaders, union officials, relevant academics, fire and police officials, environmentalists, regulators.’[19]

In 1993, for instance, Mothers Opposing Pollution (MOP), launched a highly publicised campaign in Australia against plastic milk bottles; alleging their carcinogenic properties, difficulty of disposal, and the deleterious effects of sunlight upon milk.  Their lead spokeswoman, ‘Alana Maloney’ was later revealed to be Janet Rundle, head of PR company J. R. and Associates and business partner of Trevor Munnery. Munnery owned Unlimited Public Relations, which just happened to hold the account of the Association of Liquidpaperboard Carton Manufacturers (ALC). MOP was later exposed as a front group created to disparage plastic milk bottles in order to boost ALC sales.[20]

In 2016, the Canadian comedian Cathy Jones and Dr. Vivien Brown (assistant professor of family and community medicine at the University of Toronto) fronted a campaign to get women to start talking about post-menopause female sexual health and vaginal atrophy. What people would not have known, were it not for a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) investigation, was that the project was initiated and funded by Novo Nordisk Canada Inc., which makes a vaginal hormone pill.

No parties including GCI want any mention of the drug or drug company,” CBC was told. “It’s an unbranded campaign.[21]

Pharmaceutical companies employ a similar strategy, known as ‘selling in’. PR firms pay medical journalists to write articles favourable to a product in return for conferences junkets, a fee, or other incentives. Crucially, the articles are most effective when the remuneration given to the writer remains undisclosed. A similar practice occurs in the travel section of newspapers, however, in this instance it is generally made clear if a journalist has received free flights or accommodation.[22]

A further example of the believability of ‘independent experts’ can be seen in the proliferation of ‘independent’ think-tanks whose spokespeople appear in the media. Generally speaking, the political allegiance and commercial backing of these organisations is not revealed. For example, in 2001 a fellow of the right wing Institute for Economic Affairs, the philosopher Roger Scruton, wrote a pamphlet attacking the World Health Organisation − without revealing that, at the time, he was in the pay of Japan Tobacco.[23] In 2006, it was revealed that the world-renowned epidemiologist, Sir Richard Doll, had spent 20 years in the pay of Monsanto. During that time, he had written to a royal Australian commission investigating the potential cancer-causing properties of Agent Orange, made by Monsanto, averring that there was no evidence it was carcinogenic.[24]

The problem here is honesty. MOP might have been right about plastic bottles, Roger Scruton and Sir Richard Doll might have been sincere in everything they said, and Cathy Jones might be struggling every day against vaginal atrophy. The ethical problem, in each case, lay in the failure to disclose that they were representing an interest. Without this honesty, to return to the legal metaphor, the jury cannot know how much credibility to give the witness on the stand.

Add to this the problems of an enfeebled press watchdog that I discussed here and one can see how unconstrained by countervailing power corporate PR frequently is. PR professionals fancy that they contribute to the marketplace of ideas but too often they belong to its dark corners with the hustlers and the card sharps. Persuasion becomes propaganda when motives are disguised and words are put in other people’s mouths. Of course, it’s impracticable for the individual to investigate every story they hear but one should always treat purportedly ‘neutral’ expertise with scepticism and ask the basic questions: Who does this ‘expert’ work for? Who commissioned this research or survey? And, most importantly, who benefits from me believing this claim?

__________

Notes

[1] Scott M. Cutlip (1994) “The Unseen Power: Public Relations. A History,” p. xii.

[2] Simon Lewis, quoted in Carol Midgley, “All that spin makes many feel queasy” in The Times, 14th November 1997.

[3] Edward Bernays (1928) “Propaganda” p. 45.

[4] Philip Lesly (1998) “Lesly’s Handbook of Public Relations And Communications,” p. 7.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Robert Dahl (1989) “Democracy and its Critics,” It is this arrangement that Dahl calls ‘a process of successive approximation’ (pp. 336-338).

[7] Larry Tye (1998) “The Father of Spin. Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations,” p. 92

[8] Edward Bernays (1928) “Propaganda” pp. 10-11.

[9] John Milton (1644) “Aeropagitica”.

[10] Pro-Trump websites misquoted Indra Nooyi (Pepsi’s CEO) suggesting Trump supporters ‘take their business elsewhere.’ The sports shoe manufacturer, New Balance was forced to respond when its vice president of public affairs was misquoted by an anti-Trump website as saying that New Balance was the ‘official brand of the Trump revolution.’ (Ilyse Liffreing “So your brand is the victim of fake news. Now what?” PR Week 21st November 2016 available at http://www.prweek.com/article/1416264/so-brand-victim-fake-news-what )

[11] The proposed pipeline, no longer quite so stalled thanks to the intercession of President Trump, would span the 1,179 miles between the oil sands of Alberta, Canada and Steele City in Nebraska.

[12] Ian Austin “P.R. Firm Urges TransCanada to Target Opponents of Its Energy East Pipeline,” New York Times 17th November 2014, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/18/business/pr-firm-urges-transcanada-to-target-opponents-of-its-energy-east-pipeline.html See also Lisa Graves “Edelman TransCanada Leak: Aggressive PR for Keystone Alt,” PR Watch 18th November 2014.

[13] For more detailed discussions of specific cases, see John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton (1995) “Toxic Sludge is Good for You”; Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber (2001) “Trust Us, We’re Experts!”; Nicky Hager and Bob Burton (2000) “Secrets and Lies: The Anatomy of an Anti-Environmental PR Campaign”; Robert Jackall and Janice Hirota (2000) “Image Makers, Advertising, Public Relations, and the Ethos of Advocacy”; Sharon Beder (1990) “Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism”; or Sharon Beder (2006) “Free Market Missionaries: The Corporate Manipulation of Community Values”.

[14] As Stauber and Rampton (1995, p. 14) put it twenty years ago, ‘[r]aw money enables the PR industry to mobilize private detectives, attorneys, broadcast faxes, satellite feeds, sophisticated information systems and other expensive, high tech resources to out manoeuvre, overpower and outlast true citizen reformers.’

[15] Denise Deegan (2001) “Managing Activism: A Practical Guide for Dealing with Activists and Pressure Groups,” p. 102.

[16] The [a]rt of public relations is to have the appearance of disinterestedness. It stands to reason that the facts regarding the merits of any company or product are more readily believed if they are put forward with apparent spontaneity by a person or body not directly concerned with increasing its sales ( Jim Dunn (1999) “Public Relations Techniques that Work”, p. 7.) One leading PR firm employed by Monsanto, the Bivings Group, used to have an article on its website, entitled which warned that, ‘…there are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organization is directly involved … it simply is not an intelligent PR move. In cases such as this, it is important to first “listen” to what is being said online … Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party. … Perhaps the greatest advantage of viral marketing is that your message is placed into a context where it is more likely to be considered seriously’ (George Monbiot “The Fake Persuaders,” Guardian 14th May 2002 available at http://www.monbiot.com/2002/05/14/the-fake-persuaders/  )

[17] Austin, op. cit.; Graves op. cit.

[18] M. Megali and A Friedman (1991) “Masks of Deception: Corporate Front Group in America,” p. 3.

[19] No author “Third Party Techniques,” available at http://www.tobaccotactics.org/index.php?title=Third_Party_Techniques

[20] Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber (2001) “Trust Us, We’re Experts!” p. 16.

[21]  My emphasis added. Kelly Crowe “Ads disguised as news: A drug company’s stealth marketing campaign exposed,” 5th October 2016 available at http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/vaginal-atrophy-analysis-1.3786547

[22] Nic Paton “When is a story not a story?” Guardian 22nd October 2001 available at https://www.theguardian.com/media/2001/oct/22/mondaymediasection5

[23] Helena Paul, Richarda Steinbrecher, Devlin Kuyek, Lucy Michaels (2003) “Hungry Corporations,” p. 66.

[24] Sarah Boseley “Renowned cancer scientist was paid by chemical firm for 20 years,” Guardian 8th December 2006 available at https://www.theguardian.com/science/2006/dec/08/smoking.frontpagenews

The Timorous Watchdog

The history of Public Relations did not end in the 1950s although, for the time being, my history of it does. It suffices to say that, while the past 70 years have seen its fortunes rise and fall, the trend has always been upward.

In 2015, the top five largest PR firms globally (Edelman, Weber Shandwick, Fleischman Hillard, Ketcham, Burson Marstelller, and MSL Group) had combined revenues of $3.7bn. All but MSL are American. The largest British firm was Brunswick (twelfth on the list), with revenues in 2015 of $220m.[1] It’s perhaps a portent that ninth on the list, BlueFocus, is Chinese.

The industry today has resources, reach, and techniques that would doubtless dazzle pioneers like Ivy Lee, George Creel, and Edward Bernays but, beneath the 21st Century lustre, they’d recognise the same driving purpose. While still deployed to sugar the pill of bigotry, mendacity, and atrocity we call ‘war,’ PR has long been used mainly to further private interests: businesses, charities, public institutions, and so forth. In short, to sell.

The social justification for public relations in a free society, Scott Cutlip argues, is to ‘ethically and effectively plead the cause of a client or organization in the freewheeling forum of public debate. It is a basic democratic right that every idea, individual, and institution shall have a full and fair hearing in the public forum  that their merit ultimately must be determined by their ability to be accepted in the marketplace.’[2] I’ll examine the practice of this theory next week. Right now, however, I’ll concern myself with what should be a bulwark against the hucksters, the flimflam, and the snake oil: the free press.

In terms of boots on the ground, journalists in the US have long been outnumbered by PR battalions. According to US Bureau of Labor statistics, as of May 2016 there were 40,090 reporters and correspondents compared with 226,940 PR specialists; a ratio of 5.6 to 1 in PR’s favour.[3] In the UK, matters are rather different. The most recent Labour Force Survey estimates that, in 2016, there were 84,000 journalists and 49,000 PR professionals but this does encompass an unexplained single year increase of 20,000. Most of that increase is accounted for by those describing themselves as self-employed or freelance. With those excluded entirely, the overall number of journalists drops to 47,000.[4]

The relationship between journalism and PR has traditionally been held to be uneasy at best.  In 2011, for instance, a YouGov survey of journalists found that just one percent of respondents trusted PR agencies ‘a great deal’ and sixty-one percent did not trust them ‘very much’ or ‘at all’.[5] The Senior Principal at Flatiron Communications, Peter Himler, writes of the ‘historical love-hate relationship between journalists and PR professionals,’ which results not merely from mistrust but also competing priorities and pressure of work (for instance, PR professionals using electronic systems to deluge journalists’ inboxes with ‘greater volumes of misguided or inane story pitches’).[6] The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade describes journalists as the people with the  ‘requisite scepticism about PR blurbs and supposed knowledge of the topic to provide readers/consumers with an analysis that will allow them to make an informed decision/choice.’[7]

The conflict model, however, has recently been recast as a “trading” relationship in which journalists, working in under-resourced and under-staffed newsrooms, increasingly rely on PR sources for editorial copy in return for access to editorial columns for PR stories. In Flat Earth News, Nick Davies paints a fascinating picture of an emaciated and timorous watchdog: starved of time and money, in thrall to the powerful, and forced to run cheap, safe stories to attract new readers and affirm the prejudices of those they already have,

The overt links to the media and the whole well-worn idea of ‘spin’ scarcely begin to capture the breadth and ingenuity of the tactics which are now used by the global industry of public relations. And it is this huge industry of manipulation – targeted at a structurally vulnerable media –  which feeds falsehood and distortion directly into our news channels , without the old-fashioned need to use proprietors or advertisers as levers.[8]

The advent of audience analytics means that for many major news retailers content is no longer driven by journalists’ intuition but a data-driven assessment of consumer preferences.[9] A recent survey of British journalists argues that it ‘remains unclear to what extent they feel bullied by this into the clickbait game, rather than feeling that they can use the data to make better, independent decisions about how to provide a service the audience values.’[10] Journalists at the large UK regional news publisher Trinity Mirror, for instance, have reportedly been told to ‘focus relentlessly on the content that we know gives us the most return for our effort… and [be] ruthless about content that doesn’t,’ with regular performance assessments ‘taking into account audience traffic’ to their content.[11]

In fact, this is merely the latest development in a much longer trend. As far back as 1955, the then Daily Herald (now The S*n) used market research to review its content before deciding to ‘devote less space to political and industrial coverage and more to human interest stories, photos, and strip cartoons.’[12] This was identified as the best way to rebuild circulation and attract women who were ‘vital to the advertising department.’[13] Newspapers have also long been divided into sections to facilitate advertisers targeting of specific audiences.

Without time to check details, to go out into the world and make contacts, reporters are reduced to ‘churnalism,’ to the ‘passive processing of material which overwhelmingly tends to be supplied for them by outsiders, particularly wire agencies and PR.’[14] One source reported this month in the Press Gazette ‘painted a picture of a working life where journalists do little other than rejig the work of others, adding pictures, headlines and adjusting the copy to avoid falling foul of copyright laws.’[15] A survey in 2015 found a large majority believe time for researching stories has decreased and the influence of profit-making pressures, PR activity, and advertising considerations has strengthened.[16] An ironic consequence of this is that at least one national newspaper website is haemorrhaging its graduate trainees – to PR and marketing roles. 

Writers such as John Stauber & Sheldon Rampton and Jeff & Marie Blyskal have attested over the past thirty years to a similar picture in the US with genuinely independent journalism gutted as a handful a mega corporations have swallowed thousands of titles. Today, ninety percent of US media companies are owned by six corporations.[17] Thousands of local  newspapers have been asset-stripped until only small, demoralised workforces remain; incapable of investigative journalism. Instead, ‘news’papers become merely avenues for marketing material, celebrity gossip, and anything else thought to increase circulation and, therefore, the available acreage of  ‘brain space.’[18] As PR Week recently said of the US scene, hacks ‘cover larger beats, produce more stories, and generate more page views than ever before.’[19]

The increase in the media’s reliance of PR material is deeply concerning given that it began from an already high base. One British study in 2006 found that almost twenty percent of newspaper stories and seventeen percent of broadcast stories in their sample were ‘verifiably derived mainly or wholly from PR material or activity.’[20] In a further eleven percent of press, and fourteen percent of broadcast stories, PR had an ‘agenda setting role’. Interestingly, for broadcast media, stories presented by news anchors alone tended to be sourced ‘mainly or wholly’ from PR material. Making journalists reliant on PR material means that PR sets the agenda. Financial Times journalist and Director of Journalism at Reuters Oxford International Institute for Journalism John Lloyd concurs,

The normal journalistic approach to PRs i.e. dogs and lampposts is grossly self-serving from the point of view of journalists. It glosses over, ignores or even denies the fact that much of current journalism both broadcast and press is public relations in the sense that stories, ideas, features and interviews are either suggested, or in the extreme actually written by public relations people. Until that becomes open and debated between PR people and journalists, we will continue to have this artificially wide gulf where journalists pose as fearless seekers of truth and PRs are slimy creatures trying to put one over on us. It is not remotely like that.[21]

And PR isn’t just about promoting stories, it’s also about suppressing them. PR agencies can threaten to cut off the drip feed of stories on which harried journalists are dependent or they can offer ‘better’ stories in exchange for silence. Or they use stronger measures, as when Ketchum put pressure on US TV stations not to promote David Steinman’s Diet for a Poisoned Planet.

Ketchum obtained details of the book tour and TV and radio appearances that Steinman had planned. They called each media outlet and hassled them to drop the interview or to allow an industry spokesman on the show to present a balanced case. Through the American Council on Science and Health, an industry front group and client of Ketchum, they lobbied the US government to work against the book. Dr William Marcus, a senior science advisor for the Environmental Protection Agency, who had written the book’s foreword was pressured to withdraw it. He refused and was later fired from the EPA.[22]

It’s perhaps unreasonable to expect the corporate press to hold PR to account. They are, after all, merely subdivisions of the same business architecture, both intended to make a profit and dependent on the corporate capitalist structure to exist. PR is concerned with selling a product, the corporate media is concerned with selling an audience to advertisers. But there are still decent journalists trying to work within the corporate structure whose ability to do what should be their job is undercut by every new round of ‘rationalisation.’

The more the press is denuded of its muscle the more ‘source-based’ journalism -printing what people want you to know – will consume investigative journalism -printing what people don’t want you to know. And news, as Randolph Hearst said, ‘is what someone does not want you to print – the rest is advertising.’

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Notes

[1] Figures sourced from The Holmes Report “Global Top 250 PR Agency Ranking 2016,” available at https://www.holmesreport.com/ranking-and-data/global-communications-report/2016-pr-agency-rankings/top-250 Note that six firms are listed as Burson Marsteller and MSL Group were joint fifth.

[2] Scott M. Cutlip (1994) “The Unseen Power: Public Relations. A History,” p. xii.

[3] US Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics   https://www.bls.gov/oes/#data

[4] Office for National Statistics (August 2016) “EMP04: Employment by occupation,” available at https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/datasets/employmentbyoccupationemp04

[5] Unknown Author (2011) “Over 60 per cent of journalists think PR agencies cannot be trusted,” in PR Moment, available at

http://www.prmoment.com/category/pr-research/over-60-per-cent-of-journalists-think-pr-agencies-cannot-be-trusted

[6] Peter Himler “The Journalist And The PR Pro: A Broken Marriage?” Forbes 14th March 2014, available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/peterhimler/2013/03/14/the-journalist-the-pr-pro-a-broken-marriage/#51da87a33a41

[7] Roy Greenslade “More PRs and fewer journalists threatens democracy,” The Guardian Online Thursday 4 October 2012 available at https://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2012/oct/04/marketingandpr-pressandpublishing

[8] Nick Davies (2008) “Flat Earth News,” p. 167.

[9] The shift from print to online readers, along with software such as  Chartbeat, NewsWhip, and Parse.ly, generates huge amounts of data on what is read and shared and by whom. This information is increasingly being used to prioritise stories (Neil Thurman, Alessio Cornia, and Jessica Kunert (2016) “Journalists in the UK” Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, p. 36 available at https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/Journalists%20in%20the%20UK.pdf )

[10] Thurman et. al. (2016) p. 4.

[11] Dominic Ponsford “Journalists to be given personal online audience growth targets after job cuts at Trinity Mirror Midlands” Press Gazette 9th June 2015, available at http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/journalists-be-given-personal-online-audience-growth-targets-after-job-cuts-trinity-mirror-midlands/

[12] James Curran and June Seaton (2010) “Power Without Responsibility. Press, Broadcasting and the Internet in Britain,” p. 85.

[13] ‘Daily Herald reader interest surveys recommendations,’ p. 8 quoted in Curran and Seaton (2010), p. 85.

[14] Davies (2008) p.73.

[15] Dominic Ponsford “Source: ‘Ripping culture’ at national newspaper website prompts most graduate trainees to leave journalism for PR,” Press Gazette, 3rd August 2017, available at http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/source-ripping-culture-at-national-newspaper-website-prompts-most-graduate-trainees-to-leave-journalism-for-pr/

[16] Thurman et. al. (2016) p. 7.

[17] See John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton (1995) “Toxic Sludge is Good for You!” or Jeff and Marie Blyskal (1987) “PR: How the Public Relations Industry Writes the News”. See also Michael Corcoran “Democracy in Peril: Twenty Years of Media Consolidation Under the Telecommunications Act,” Truthout 11th February 2016 available at http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/34789-democracy-in-peril-twenty-years-of-media-consolidation-under-the-telecommunications-act

[18] Patrick LeLay, the head of the French media giant, TF1, described the purpose of his company thus ‘There are many ways of talking about television. But from a business perspective, let’s be realistic: fundamentally speaking, the job of TF1 is to help Coca-Cola to sell its product … If an advertising message is to register, the viewer’s brain needs to be made available.’ The same reasoning applies to print media.

[19] Dylan Tweney (2017) “What Responsibility Does PR Have to the Dying Media?” PR Week, 28th February 2017, available at http://www.prweek.com/article/1425774/responsibility-does-pr-dying-media

[20] Justin Lewis, Andrew Williams Bob Franklin (2008): A Compromised Fourth Estate?, Journalism Studies, 9:1, 1-20.

[21] Quoted in Lewis et al. (2008).

[22] Corporate Watch “Public relations and lobbying industry an overview,” April 2003, available at https://corporatewatch.org/content/corporate-watch-pr-industry-pr-and-media