Julia Hobsbawm: 'I'm back. What's all the fuss?'

Her latest venture is a laughing stock and her high-profile supporters are running for cover, but is PR doyenne Julia Hobsbawm worried? No, she's ecstatic, she tells Anthony Barnes
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The Independent Online

You'd expect someone whose public relations venture has been searingly criticised, whose board members have been resigning by the handful, and whose corporate clients are beginning to wonder just what they've joined, to stay on holiday. But Julia Hobsbawm, the best-connected PR person in Britain, a former business partner of Gordon Brown's wife Sarah, returned from her Norfolk hideaway yesterday to put a rather unexpected gloss on what has been a far from happy week.

Yesterday, after six days in which trenchant criticism was fired at her Editorial Intelligence venture, which aims to bring together top journalists with corporate PR, she declared: "It's been a fantastic week!"

It is, to say the least, an unusual view. Among EI's most cutting critics this week is Rod Liddle, a former Today programme editor who is now a Spectator columnist. And the firm's advisory board has lost John Lloyd, director of journalism at Oxford University; Matthew d'Ancona, editor of The Spectator; and John Kampfner, editor of the New Statesman.

But Ms Hobsbawm was unbowed. "It's been a fantastic week for Editorial Intelligence," she said. "People are going to say, what is this new generation media agency doing? It's not PR; it's not journalism - we're a bridge between the two.

"It's very exciting what we're trying to do. This business has been 10 years in the making. I am absolutely 100 per cent sure this is the way the information market is going," said Ms Hobsbawm.

Yet this weekend EI's critics took a rather a different view. Mr Liddle said yesterday: "I don't want PR to have anything to do with journalism. I think that is a reasonable standpoint to have."

Cristina Odone, a columnist with The Observer, said: "I think 'naive' is applicable to all those journalists involved. We all know we are guilty of living in a cosy media village and some would argue we are too friendly with politicians, with business leaders and PRs. But let's not formalise this."

Ms Hobsbawm countered: "I think the fact that we are putting PR and journalism on a par is what has ruffled people's feathers, but anyone who argues anything other than that is deluded. The only bad thing that has come out of this is that it has made a lot of competitors wake up to what we are doing."

Last week the very name of Hobsbawm's operation, Editorial Intelligence, had begun to look ironic. It was launched in November as "an information and networking club". A lot of prominent names were offered £1,000 to join EI's advisory board and £200 to sit on panels at events. None accepted the £1,000 fee, but many others, like Mr Liddle, felt that the idea of journalists signing up to what was, in effect, an introductions agency with the world of PR was unacceptable.

So is EI really just a cosy opportunity for busy journalists and large organisations to meet, greet, and hobnob? Is this what 40 clients - including the likes of Ofcom, Vodafone and HSBC Global Investments - are paying £4,000 a year for?

Not quite. According to the EI website, what is on offer is "Networking, Intelligence and Insight. Together these allow you to laser your forays into the world of the comment and opinion media...". More specifically, you get: access to a database of commentators (including details of each journalist's "contacts, topics, working methods and their history..."), copies of EI's journal, regular forums, a place on a workshop, and a range of additional services such as "training in editorial approaches". All very slick and jargon-ridden, but this is hardly corruption.

The controversy has left many of the journalists feeling bruised. None of them have accepted the £1,000 and only a few have taken £200 to sit on a panel, but some must be regretting allowing their names to be used to sell a commercial service to corporate clients. The words "drive", "bargain" and "hard" do not immediately leap to mind.

But, to Ms Hobsbawm, the benefits to her clients - and journalists - are clear. She said yesterday: "Networking is absolutely necessary to ensure proper information is being transferred. If you don't have good networking, you don't get good information.

"I learnt very early on that the proper way to get to know people is face to face - and then you get to know whether someone is trustworthy.

"I think the last week has been very good for the business; we are a brand new company, just five months old. Now we are inundated with offers from journalists to write for our journal. People now understand more about us and that there is a new way of mapping and monitoring and meeting the media."


Cristina Odone, commentator: "Naive is applicable to all those journalists involved. What was very sinister about this project was [that] it was dressed up as something other than it was. Plenty of PR firms have databases they sell to their clients, and that is legitimate. What stunk about EI was their fig-leaf approach."

Rod Liddle: "As for naivety, it's more of a case of friendship. The people who signed up think of Julia as a friend and were happy to help. But I don't want PR to have anything to do with journalism. It is our job to discover the truth, and theirs is to disguise it. Such collaborations should never have even been a possibility."