PR tail is wagging the institutional dog…

Newton Emerson notes that the art of PR as practised by some ex hacks is not condusive to growing trust in a number of institutions where the earning of public trust is crucial to both short and long term success. He singles out the PSNI press office for seriously overstepping the bounds of their remit:

The PSNI press office is full of people who know how to trip journalists up with sneaky tricks such as sabotaging interviews or deliberately dragging out deadlines. One of the first things bereaved relatives are told following a murder in Northern Ireland is not to speak to the press. I am aware of one instance where a family was instructed not to speak to journalists from a specific programme.

But expecting journalists to sustain rote hagiography over the medium to long term is unlikely to produce desirable results, least of all for the police themselves:

It does not seem to have occurred to the press office that acceptance of policing is ultimately based on credibility and this is undermined by corporate puff-pieces and evasive statements. An open approach to the mistakes of the past moved us into a new policing era. That progress could easily be undone by a closed approach to mistakes in the present.

He notes that not all journalists are treated the same. One journalist, that the Deputy First Minister (bit acting the part of rapscallion himself) referred to as ‘the biggest rascal in Northern Ireland’ on his own television show last weekend, strikes sufficient fear even into the PSNI press office to actually get answers to questions it refuses other mere mortals:

Several months ago I called the PSNI press office for information on the progress of a particular investigation and was given the classic response: “We can’t comment on individual cases.” But a few hours later the press office answered an identical request from the Stephen Nolan Show. It is a credit to Mr Nolan that he can make enough trouble to frighten the PSNI press office into doing its job. But it is no credit to the PSNI that its communications policy is determined on this basis.

The NIO, Emerson argues, is following suite:

Similar work is also under way at the NIO press office, where former journalists are running a very successful campaign to keep Ian Paisley away from the cameras in case his current mood of unpredictable sentimentality alarms the DUP grassroots. NIO press officers are assisted in this task by former DUP party workers who are now employed as taxpayer-funded ‘official advisers’, creating a seamless join between official and party-political news management.

And he concludes:

None of this might seem new after 10 years of New Labour but it is new to post-St Andrews Northern Ireland, where an entire political system is still bedding in. Putting that system into bed with such an accomplished seducer of the press is asking for trouble. If the cosiness between officials, politicians and journalists becomes any more obvious, it may well be a frustrated public that decides this was not part of the deal.

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  • wild turkey

    Without any official opposition in the NI assembly, effective or otherwise, the press has a particularly crucial advesarial and investigative role in this jurisdiction…and with a few exceptions, it usually fails.

    Anyway, for those in need of translating the bullshit that often emanates from press spokespeople, be aware that on On Friday 28 December The Centre for Policy Studies published Lexicon, A Guide to Newspeak.

    It is available at http://www.cps.org.uk

    click on latest publications and then click view.

    happy new year

    oh yeah, congratulations to Mr Tom Kelly for his gong and services rendered.

  • Hats off to the Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies – an excellent think-tank, and the publisher of an excellent pamphlet on the “peace process” by Michael Gove, now a Cameroon courtier.

    Of course, Papa’s minders are keen to keep him away from the cameras in case he puts his foot in it. The only problem is that you can’t fool all your unionist grassroots all of the time. Paisley only got to lead unionism after a lifetime of being the outsider because of his sensitivity to grassroot unionist anti-elitism. That sensitivity has not survived his trnasformation into a Chuckle Brother. How lucky he is that his biggest rival is Reggie.

  • Hubris ahoy

    Nearly all press officers of government institutions in NI – with the exception of a very few at the very top – are failed journalists. Unimpressive people who couldn’t hack it in a competitive field and are saved from the call centre they’d end up in in any other part of the UK by the ridiculous number of such press officer jobs available in NI (in proportion to the population).

    Meanwhile, the PSNI Press Office positively radiates resentment and bitterness in its dealings with bigger media organisations / figures. For some reason or other.

  • WT, I’ve found a free copy of the lexicon [pdf download]

    and a little more on that theme:

    The real reason politicians spout nonsense Antony Jay 27th December 2007

  • Comrade Stalin

    Meanwhile, the PSNI Press Office positively radiates resentment and bitterness in its dealings with bigger media organisations / figures. For some reason or other.

    There’s nobody to blame for this but our existing crap local media, who if they knew what they were doing would be making a massive stink about this.

  • Comrade Stalin

    From Newton’s article:

    In the aftermath of the Omagh verdict it quickly became apparent that the PSNI press office had responded to the crisis by producing what is known in the trade as a “line to take” – an expression grimly redolent of weary cynicism. This line, delivered by everyone from the chief constable down, is that the trial ultimately failed because no witnesses came forward. But the chief constable has the power to compel informers to turn Queen’s evidence and the testimony of a senior police officer alone is sufficient to secure a conviction under a law introduced after the Omagh bomb. It is sickening to think that the people who came up with this line are undoubtedly pleased with their work.

    It would be useful to hear from the Chief Constable why he didn’t pursue this option.

  • I’m told that New Labour ministers, when they came into office, cleared out the press offices of local state agencies and replaced them with press officers acting under NIO control ie press officers were centrally controlled and remained, politically, ‘on message’.

  • It seems the PSNI has lost Sinéad McSweeney, it’s Director of Media and Public Relations, to the Garda.

  • Shore Road Resident

    Rather strange rebuttal to this from Lindy McDowell –

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/columnists/lindy-mcdowell/article3291961.ece

  • George

    Comrade Stalin,
    “It would be useful to hear from the Chief Constable why he didn’t pursue this option.”

    I would have thought that any law enacted after Omagh cannot act retrospectively.

  • Jivaro

    There are no innocent parties here. Posters are right when they point to the low calibre and motivation of many local media people. There’s a reason for that, and it’s the usual reason: the wages are crap. That’s why so many leave the squalor of the newsroom and head for public sector PR as fast as their legs can carry them.

    As to the PSNI press office, it is notoriously slippery and manipulative – and anything to do with the shambles of the Omagh investigation puts them straight into gibbering control-freak mode.

    For decades, much of NI news journalism consisted of calling the RUC press office news hotline for a feed, and then reporting it with a lovely byline. And that era is not yet over.

    No journalist worth his or her salt would put up with Ken Devlin or anyone else laying down the law about what they could ask or not ask, report or not report, about a public court case. Only a demotivated and/or lazy press corps of cop tarts could end up in such a contemptible position.

    Having said that, Newton Emerson is no stranger to journalistic tricks and shakedowns himself…

  • Shore Road Resident

    That would sort of be the point of being a journalist though, wouldn’t it?
    I’m more concerned by a Tele journalist defending Devlin’s remarks as “slang” and “common usage”.
    The Tele’s pathetic pro-establishment agenda gets more obvious every day.

  • idunnomeself

    Newton Emerson has once again called OFMDFM ‘the NIO’

    Doesn’t he realise that this looks slipshod? Has no one told him? They are different organisations, with different bosses, in different buildings.

    Maybe that’s why he gets ignored?? (bless him)

  • Jivaro

    Friends,

    There is a bigger issue to be understood here: the relationship between journalism and PR in Northern Ireland.

    Basically, there is almost no ‘investigative journalism’ in Northern Ireland. At least 90% of the content in the four morning papers and the Sundays is generated from material, tip-offs or contacts supplied by PR agencies or press officers. The rest is mostly columns and opinion pieces, themselves largely informed from PR sources. That is to say, journalism – and the media – in Northern Ireland relies almost totally on material from PR sources of one kind or another.

    People who have not worked in the newspapers or PR don’t know this – or if they suspect, do not appreciate the real extent of dependence on PR material and contacts.

    Journalists and PRs are working in the same media environment: that’s why it’s easy – but misleading – to call journalists who become press officers ‘failed’ journalists. They have just got a better paid job generating material for press and broadcast outlets.

    And it works both ways: Tom Kelly of Stakeholder has a column in the press: so does Paul McErlean of MCE: I heard Joris Minne of JPR on the BBC a couple of days ago: Geoff Hill of the News Letter runs courses teaching PRs how to write tighter prose – and there are plenty more examples.

    I don’t suggest for an instant that any of those PRs use their columns to puff their agency clients: that would be most improper and would be stamped on vigorously by the newspaper management.

    What little investigative reporting goes on tends to be in the BBC ( which is exempt from the commercial pressures the others are under), plus UTV insight, and of course David Gordon in the BT, who has worked the Freedom of Information Act manfully over the past year or two, to the immense discomfiture of our quangocracy.

    You could say that the size of the PR world has meant that the newspapers have been able to slash their own investment in journalists and journalism – and you’d be right.

    There isn’t a journalist on any of our four morning papers who, if offered a public sector press officer’s job on a couple of grand more than they’re getting now, wouldn’t jump at it.

    So the relationship between journalists and the PRs who feed them is not enmity, or even armed neutrality; it’s envy.

  • hubris ahoy

    “here isn’t a journalist on any of our four morning papers who, if offered a public sector press officer’s job on a couple of grand more than they’re getting now, wouldn’t jump at it.”

    There’s a few, but they’re either independently rich and can afford to do a job they enjoy OR – more importantly – they’re gunning for a job in the BBC which is the only place paying reporters and producers salaries which are actually decent (and compare well with the statutory PR gigs), and in the same sort of level as proper professions.
    That situation is also changing as the entry level salary at the Beeb is being pushed down to cut costs…and there is no shortage of people who will work for next to nothing to get in the door.

  • jivaro

    Hubris ahoy

    You’re right about the BBC, which does pay decent money, and has a degree of independence from the daily grind that commercial newspapers don’t.

    Being absorbed into the mystical body of the BBC – or landing one of the few correspondent jobs for one of the London or Dublin papers – functions as the peak of the profession in Northern Ireland insofar as it relates to journalism, rather than management.

    But that’s not to say that the BBC is somehow immune from or unsullied by the tentacles of PR: they aren’t. BBCNI drinks deeply from the PR fountain, too; it’s just slightly better at disguising it.

  • Animus

    I don’t know that it’s fair to say that press officers are failed journalists. The Telegraph’s staff seems to shrink all the time and if I was trying to make a living and pay a mortgage, a job in the NIO would probably look like a pretty good option.

    For Newt to be annoyed about taxpayer-funded special advisors is just silly. And Nevin, your bit of gossip about who was moved out sounds a bit silly as well. People know if they work for the NIO that they will be expected to follow a certain line (I work for a voluntary sector organisation myself and we have certain lines on particular topics. This is not a conspiracy, it’s the way organisations present themselves as cogent.) Is Newton doing a faux-naif thing or is he just a bit thick? Considering he gets paid by a newspaper – and not even for journalism, just for his various ramblings – he should suck it up and enjoy it while it lasts. As long as he and Stephen Nolan are admired, we are going to have a very poor standard of journalism.

  • jivaro

    There is a slightly laughable tendency among journalists to take themselves very, very seriously as sea-green incorruptibles, stainless tribunes of the truth.

    I blame Watergate, really, for much of this hack pomposity: yet when all is said and done, Watergate was basically a leak from a disgruntled employee – the oldest, easiest story of them all.

    He has his faults – the occasional odour of journalistic sanctity being foremost among them – but for my money Newton Emerson is one of the best we’ve got: a genuinely original, iconoclastic voice.

  • Animus

    If Newt’s the best we’ve got, that’s a fair illustration of how low the standard is. You say iconoclast, I say blowhard.

  • Shore Road Resident

    There’s a difference between “an organisation presenting itself as cogent” and an organisation making a pig’s ear of covering up its failures on an issue as serious as the Omagh trial. The PSNI did not present a “cogent” line after the verdict. Its press officer just said the investigating officer would answer no questions “because he won’t”. How can this possibly be defended?

  • “your bit of gossip about who was moved out sounds a bit silly as well.”

    Is that your best effort at a ‘cogent’ response, animus? 🙂

    It’s been my impression that some direct rule ministers were prepared to lie ‘cogently’ and so it was therefore necessary to plant NIO press officers in agencies that had previously chosen their own press officers in order to prevent ‘inconvenient’ truths being released.

  • Animus

    Shore Road Resident – I was responding to Nevin’s post about New Labour coming in and replacing press officers, I didn’t mention anything about the Omagh trial. I certainly wouldn’t defend what appears to be a catalogue of systematic failure.

    Nevin – can you give us some instances or is this just something you’ve heard? (I’m hungover – so not very cogent at all today.) My partner was offered a job in the NIO through open competition a couple of years ago (the salary was too low, alas) and I’m not sure how it could have been rigged. He’s not a politico of any stripe.

    As for OFMDFM and special advisors, that is entirely a different matter. I’m still not totally clear on how Ministers choose their advisors, it seems to vary widely but of course they are going to choose people who will have a clear idea of the party’s position on policy.

  • craicen awakes

    Whatever anyone may think of Mr Nolan’s style, he is one of the few people in this country properly taking on the politicians, the police, the judiciary and the quangos. The fact that he has done this while reaching a level of popularity which is unprecedented in local broadcasting and which has been recognised with an unprecedented number of national and international awards (and a national gig with Radio 5) means there will always be a degree of embittered sniping from the sidelines.

  • Animus

    Properly? Give me a break – this is a man who refuses to pay parking tickets, who didn’t pay his gas bill. What a role model. He positions himself as a moral champion but doesn’t maintain civic responsibilities himself.

    He regularly ‘takes on’ soft targets and is just unpleasant and ill-informed. I have been on his show a number of times and I can predict what he’ll say every time. I am surprised how gullible people are that they swallow his line of crap.

  • craicen awakes

    The fact is that Nolan’s campaigning, populist style has made him the most successful local broadcaster Northern Ireland has ever produced and with his regular shows on Radio 5, he’s clearly being groomed for greater things. Obviously though the Sony Radio Academy, The Royal Television Society, the biggest radio/TV audience in Northern Ireland and his millions of listeners in the rest of the UK are wrong and you are right.
    As for Emerson I often disagree with his views but the writing is clearly a cut above most other local pundits. Which will probably explain why he also writes for nationals like the Irish Times and is on national BBC and RTE all the time.

    Actually Animus, one could be forgiven for thinking that you’re one of these failed journalists turned government lackeys…
    Regardless, those press offices ARE full of the dregs from local media who have failed to get in the Beeb or UTV and who know they’re first for the chop if cuts come.

  • Animus

    By the same token, if government voted to bring back hanging, most of the population would go for it – that doesn’t make it a good idea. Populist styles usually takes the lowest common denominator. Look at pop music – what’s popular is almost always tosh, same with book sales. As for Radio, Chris Moyles is immensely popular and he’s a tosser as well. People like to think the world is uncomplicated and Nolan and Moyles take this common man approach and milk it for all its worth. Fine for them, but they are still churning out rubbish. Most people I know hate Nolan but many of them still listen to his show now and again.

    I love the idea that I could be a government lackey – you’ve given me quite a chuckle Craicen. I don’t have much respect for PR or media generally, although there are some exceptions. But given the option for highly unstable work with unsocial hours and relatively few prospects for promotion (journalism) and the relatively cushy position of working in government doing the same thing with better terms and conditions, I know which one I’d choose. And I wouldn’t necessarily consider it a failure either.

    Why are you so down on press officers but so willing to big up Stephen Nolan?

  • Animus, one example is the prison service. Presumably, a straightforward response from a prison PO might might have been unacceptable on political grounds so that would have been why an NIO ‘minder’ was substituted for the probably better informed prison PO.

    Other Slugger posters might remember my references to ‘not ruffling paramilitary feathers without political clearance’. I’m told that this was the direction given to police officers in the 1990s; they could observe wrong-doing only in some instances as certain paramilitaries were untouchable, so to speak.

  • Animus, I thought Nolan did quite a good interview with Paisley jnr re. Sweeney but that wasn’t the first time he’d encountered Sweeney. On the other hand, the BBC coverage of the Ballee affair was pretty dire.