The Rise of Public Relations and The Great Wall of Obfuscation

Friday, 16 November 2012

It's a well established fact that the growing public relations industry is having a profound impact on journalism today. Last month I was reading about how global PR revenues are amounting to $10bn a year, and in the United States it is estimated that the ratio of American PR professionals to journalists grew from 1.2-1 in 1980 to 4-1 in 2010.

What this means in reality is not only that journalists are ceaselessly bombarded by a near-constant flow of emailed press releases. It has also contributed towards something far more damaging to the profession. That is, how public relations representatives and press officers increasingly function as a barrier or buffer between the journalist and the information he (or she) wants to obtain. They often seem trained to engage in evasiveness, less interested in helping reporters reveal information than they are in protecting the reputation of the organisation which pays their salary.

I'll cite a few routine examples just to illustrate the sort of thing I'm talking about.

1. I have been chasing a well-known US technology company for more than two months about an important story I have been working on concerning surveillance, and so far I have been passed between two separate public relations teams. Both have evaded answering my direct questions and declined to put me in direct contact with the people at the company I need to speak to. Why? "It's complicated," I have been repeatedly told.

2. Government organisations are just as bad. Only last week I discovered that the European Commission, the EU's executive body, has a rule in place that bars its officials from talking directly to any journalists. Any contact, one official told me, has to be approved by the press office, which functions as a sort of overlord, sanctioning any comments before they are released.

3. While pursuing a story last year about Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of leaking US government documents to WikiLeaks, I contacted a police detective in Wales who I understood had some involvement in the Manning case. Manning is a joint UK-US citizen because his mother is Welsh and lives in Wales, and I wanted to find out more information about claims the Welsh force had assisted the FBI to search his mother's house. The detective refused point blank to speak with me when I called her on the phone; she sounded offended that I had even attempted to ask her a question directly and hung up on me seconds after I introduced myself. The press officer for the force swiftly emailed me a reprimand: "In future if you have a media query please observe the correct protocol and contact the press office and do not approach individual officers directly." I fired back: "Not every public body – police force, council, government office etc. – has a set in stone 'protocol' that must be blindly adhered to and never breached. May I remind you that it is not a against any law for a journalist to approach a police officer to ask for background comment."

The cold and arbitrary bureaucracy of it can be extremely frustrating. On some occasions, press officers can be helpful: assisting you by pointing out relevant information, or by arranging interviews with officials. But in other (most) cases there is no doubt that they function as corporate-style risk managers ready to erect a Great Wall of Obfuscation the moment they get a whiff of a controversial headline.

This also has a bearing on the UK's Freedom of Information Act, which is used to obtain information from public bodies. Specifically, take how London's Metropolitan Police has admitted handling Freedom of Information requests. FOI requests, according to the UK's Information Commissioner, are supposed to be "applicant and motive blind" because "it is about disclosure to the public, and public interests. It is not about specified individuals or private interests." The Met's policy, revealed during a government consultation on FOI law in February, contravenes the commissioner's principle because journalists' requests are treated differently and have to be pre-approved for release by the press office.

One thing I am glad to see is that the UK's Society of Editors appears to have recognised the impact all of this is having. On Monday in Belfast the Society hosted a discussion on the topic, described as follows:

Members of the public have a right to know, but journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to get answers to the simplest of questions on their behalf. A creeping control culture means that face-to-face contact, and even telephone calls being replaced by carefully managed email exchanges. De-humanised, sterile, and obstructive, this trend poses a serious threat to journalism and genuine transparency – at all levels.

It is definitley a threat – but I'm not sure how journalists collectively can respond. As the public relations industry grows, in stark contrast, journalism is struggling to survive. There are less and less publications out there able to invest in time-consuming, laborious investigative reporting, which is hugely detrimental to society and to the health of democracy.

One solution might be for the government to create a kind of investigative journalism fund to help reporters and media outlets finance important investigative projects. This has been supported by a House of Lords committee – but is probably unlikely to come to fruition at least in the near future due to the wider economic crisis. Yet it's not as if public funding for investigative reporting isn't financially viable, even in the grip of a recession. Recently, the government wasted an estimated £40 million on a botched rail contract. Yes, £40 million. Even a fraction of that amount could have funded valuable muckraking projects and helped to push back against the polluting culture of public relations.

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