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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty