Brian Wilson: The unvarnished truth is more revealing than PR

Centrica's chief executive Iain Conn inadvertantly walked into a media minefield when he gave a briefing. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
Centrica's chief executive Iain Conn inadvertantly walked into a media minefield when he gave a briefing. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
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I spoke to a roomful of media students recently and asked them what they wanted to do after graduating. For a true believer in the importance of the printed word, the response was not encouraging.

Hardly anyone intended to go into newspapers and those who did aspired to becoming football reporters. There were a few for magazines and broadcasting but overwhelmingly, the preferred option was within the burgeoning, though far from uplifting, profession of public relations.

My straw poll confirmed a new media law. As the traditional means of communicating news contracts, the army of those seeking to manage it expands ad infinitum. Conflation of these two forces makes it more important than ever to imprint the old maxim: “News is what someone doesn’t want you to print. All the rest is publicity.”

That is a test which every reader, viewer and listener should apply regularly and evaluate content accordingly. Particularly in its lower reaches, too much of journalism has become a sedentary occupation reviewing slews of self-interested press releases and, if the PR people have succeeded, processing them into the received word.

In the world of politics, the weapon of choice is the off-the-record briefing, a tasty morsel provided free of charge which does not involve the time-consuming business of finding anything out. All the pressure on “mainstream media” is to accept these channels as legitimate norms, squeezing out the real stuff of journalism which is to go in search of stories that the PR people and spin-doctors are paid to suppress, not promote.

It is therefore good news when the spin machine falters and the past week threw up a couple of enjoyable examples from which there are lessons to be learned. The first, more salutary than serious, involved the announcement by Centrica that it is to increase electricity prices by an audacious 12.5 per cent.

This news was broken by Centrica’s unfortunately-named chief executive, Iain Conn, who clearly had been the recipient of some expensive media training. I listened skeptically to Mr Conn’s smooth, faintly Scottish tones explaining why the increase is entirely justified, indeed a snip. One could almost hear the media trainers giving him his instructions: ‘You must get your defences in first.’

And so it was that Mr Conn introduced the fact that wholesale costs have fallen by £36 for the average home since British/Scottish Gas last raised retail prices. Of course, he only introduced it in order to discount it. This modest benefit had been greatly exceeded by “transmission and distribution costs and government policy measures”.

Given the £4 million-a-year Mr Conn’s precision with numbers on wholesale prices, it seemed unfortunate that he was not probed on the specifics of the alleged counterweights and whether they are so extraordinary as to justify another swingeing burden upon the “just about managing”, far less the soon-to-be-shivering poor.

Later that morning I read about the unauthorised version. The price rise had been signaled the previous day on the British Gas website. Some PR underling had made the mistake of turning a dry run into a public notice by prematurely posting the headline announcement followed by the words: “Blah, blah, blah”.

On reflection, I could not have provided a better summary of Mr Conn’s case than “blah, blah, blah” – a carefully crafted tissue of assertions which, if delivered with sufficient fluency, would take Centrica through the day and into the safe haven of old news, share price up, bills to follow, who’s next? In other words, a PR triumph of blah, blah, blah – unless vigilance helps create a climate in which politicians are forced to act. That should be the battleground between PR and journalism. Rather more spectacularly, we had the hilarious exit of Anthony Scaramucci and I would award the New Yorker journalist, Ryan Lizza, an immediate Pulitzer Prize. It was he who precipitated Mr Scaramucci’s fall from grace by the simple – but rarely used - device of quoting exactly what was said and ignoring the presumption that the journalist would pass on the spirit of the poisonous briefing without quote or attribution. We must assume that, in his innocence or arrogance, Mr Scaramucci failed to utter the magic words: “Off the record”. If he had done so, we might never have been entertained by his obscene rants about the most senior figures in the Trump menagerie. Mr Lizza knew where his duty and opportunity lay, and made the most of it, ethics untarnished.

I wish that happened oftener. The “off-the-record briefing” is the friend of lazy journalists and political snakes, who exist in all parties. Ninety-nine times out a hundred, the source – and preferably the verbatim text – of such briefing would make a much more interesting story than the unattributed dissemination of whatever message the briefer sought to convey. Somewhere along the line, it became acceptable for tittle-tattle, usually malicious, to be attributed to “sources” who operate under the cover of anonymity. If challenged, the journalist declares proudly that he or she “cannot reveal a source”. Thus a noble principle, essential for concealing the identity of courageous people who go to a journalist to help right a wrong, has been reduced to an excuse for allowing politicians and their helpers to undermine opponents (usually internal) without risk of exposure.

From my own experience, I can only wish that the “briefers” had been exposed, Scaramucci-style, during the rancid years in which the Blair government was corroded by that behaviour. Or would the bullying conduct, well-known to the Scottish media, in which the Scottish Government’s army of Special Advisers routinely engages, not be of much more public interest than the non-stories they seek to spin? When we hear now of ferocious briefings against Cabinet Ministers over Brexit by their colleagues, surely the question that matters is: “Who made the phone call?”

I am not optimistic, because the façade of high principle to protect the practice of anonymous briefing suits too many journalists as well as politicians. But a newspaper or news bulletin full of the unvarnished truth about who said what would be a lot more revealing than the blah, blah, blah of the PR industry. The best guardian of the “mainstream media’s” future is news – not publicity.