Journalists turn on PR doyenne's media agency

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When her public relations firm collapsed last year, Julia Hobsbawm, doyenne of spin and former business partner of Chancellor Gordon Brown's wife, set up a new venture endeavouring to bring PRs and journalists closer together.

The new company, Editorial Intelligence, launched at a glittering party in November 2005 attended by some of the leading lights of London's media scene, is facing its own PR crisis amid a series of high-profile resignations and allegations of conflicts of interest.

At least six top journalists have resigned from EI's advisory board amid claims of potential conflicts of interest arising from offers of money in return for advice and sitting on panels.

EI has around 40 clients, including Vodafone, the Royal Mail, the Metropolitan Police, Morgan Stanley and the media watchdog Ofcom, which subscribe for £4,000 to access a comprehensive database on commentators and columnists, and invitations to networking events.

Members of the advisory board, comprising leading journalists and PRs, were offered £1,000 apiece for their time, but all rejected the offer of payment. Some, however, have received £200 for appearing on EI panels.

Now, a number of leading commentators not associated with EI have turned their fire on the project, including the Daily Mail's Melanie Phillips, the Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle and the Guardian columnist Cristina Odone.

The editor of The Spectator, Matthew D'Ancona, and his New Statesman counterpart, John Kampfner, both announced this week that they were quitting the EI board. Mr D'Ancona said he was leaving because EI had become too much of a "distraction". He said he only signed up to the project after receiving written confirmation from Ms Hobsbawm that he would not receive any financial return for his involvement.

John Lloyd, a contributing editor to the Financial Times, also resigned, citing a conflict of interest with his post as director of journalism at Oxford University.

Three BBC journalists have also recently resigned from the board of EI. Robert Peston, former City editor of The Sunday Telegraph quit when he took up his new post as BBC business editor. Barney Jones, editor of Andrew Marr's BBC1 show Sunday AM and Kirsty Lang of BBC4 and Radio 4's Front Row, also left.

Rod Liddle, who has described the thinking behind EI as "disgusting", said yesterday: "We don't have much to cling on to as journalists. I try to think that it's a noble trade. Pretty much the only thing we have is our independence and distance from the people who wish to make money or gain power. PR people are in a parasitical occupation."

But The Independent's Yasmin Alibhai-Brown claimed the venture " facilitates robust debates between institutions and the paid opinionated". EI's client director, Jeremy Scott, said: "We are not a PR company; we make no representations on our clients' behalf. All we do is provide a forum.

Mr Scott added that the fee of £200 for appearing on a panel was an "industry standard".

Julia Hobsbawm, daughter of the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, is believed to have briefed on behalf of Kimberly Quinn over her affair with David Blunkett, although she has never confirmed this. Ms Hobsbawm, who is on holiday this week, set up EI after the PR firm she founded with Gordon Brown's wife, Sarah Macauley, was wound up.