Julia Hobsbawm: PRs have nothing to hide. What about journalists?

'The Mirror's campaign shows just how deep runs the distrust and hatred between newspapers and PR'
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The Independent Online

The Mirror is flush with its success in covering the war in Afghanistan. Sales are up, and it's time to take a stand again. This time, the Mirror is unleashing its substantial forces against a new evil: the terrorism of PR.

Apparently Frank Skinner has gone overboard in demanding copy approval for his serialised autobiography. and Piers Morgan, editor of The Mirror has Had Enough. There is a ban on all copy approval from now on and a PR offensive has been launched with articles in other newspapers about the new manoeuvre.

To help publicise this move The Mirror also published the full text of a Richard and Judy interview complete with their changes. Over 75 per cent of the total copy had been amended. Hideously embarrassing for the celebs, I predict massive collateral damage for their PR. They then "outed" the attempts of Mick Jagger's publicist's involvement in a pro-Mick story amid the welter of derisory coverage for his new solo album. I'm on the Mirror's side in one respect. Richard and Judy gave an interview, not an advertisement to The Mirror, and therefore they had a limited right to interfere beyond a certain fact-checking point. The role of PR is to provide information, to "tell the truth persuasively", and to allow journalism the right to interpret, for good or bad. But Exclusive! PR person tries to place a good story! That's just a cheap shot at a defenceless civilian and hardly fair play.

This campaign shows more than just overweening celebrity PR Goliaths being slain by their tabloid journalist Davids. It shows just how continuous and deep runs the distrust, competition and hatred between journalism and PR.

Showing copy before publication was originally intended to avoid simple inaccuracy rather than control copy. While American media employ fact-checkers (mindful of possible legal consequences of bad reporting), only Who's Who over here pays such close attention to factual detail.

Copy approval has now become a leverage tool. It bestows an element of control in an otherwise uncontrollable environment – the British media. Until and unless the Press Complaints Commission can demonstrably deter the press from their "fair game" pursuit of celebrities, the stand-off will continue. The Mirror can say no, but so can the A-list.

The history of PR is largely as unknown as the history of Kandahar was a month ago. But its origins came directly out of journalism, out of the "muck-raking" traditions of the late 19th century. If public relations is to be expected to behave properly, not to spin, or be dishonest or vague about details, then journalism must also play fair. If Richard and Judy so distrust the press, is this from paranoia or from hard-learnt experience? PR has nothing to hide. We send out press releases and give briefings openly (they are called press conferences and launches). With the exception of the mutually beneficial "off the record" quote, PR is transparent. But journalists' egos often make them demur when admitting the involvement of public relations, hence years of running doctored interviews rather than admit intervention.

I think that The Mirror's new moral high ground could go further. The paper could wage war on inaccuracy, wherever it takes place, within its own ranks or within those of PR. It could create a register for all journalism, print and electronic broadcast and to record the PR content of its stories all of the time. I'm all for a battle, but let it be one for truth and not just for ratings.

Julia Hobsbawm is head of Hobsbawm Macaulay Communications

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