Ian Burrell: Why news that PRs outnumber hacks is bad for journalism

Any big story invariably develops into a credibility contest between reporter and communications specialists

With the media and political world waiting on Lord Justice Leveson's imminent recommendations on the regulation of the press, there remains one critical area that I'm not sure was adequately covered in an otherwise exhaustive inquiry.

As any experienced reporter will tell you, the relationship between the news media and the public relations industry has changed out of all recognition in the past generation. So much so that PRs, once a specialist niche group operating in the shadow of an army of working journalists, are now the numerically superior group.

As I speak, the National Council for the Training of Journalists is updating its decade-old Journalists at Work study of 2002, which estimated there were 60,000 print journalists and 10,000 more working in broadcasting. Two years ago the media researcher François Nel suggested that the total, following relentless job cutting in the face of an internet-driven onslaught on traditional media, had fallen to 40,000.

Meanwhile, the number of PRs continues to grow. In the past 20 years, business has grasped the crucial importance of public reputation and found budgets for communications that weren't there before. Some companies have even elevated PR professionals to positions on the board.

A poll by PR Week in conjunction with the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) found there were 61,600 PR practitioners operating in the United Kingdom last year. Another industry body, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), estimates the total number may have grown from 48,000 to 60,000 in the past five years.

The scales of power have shifted. Any big story now invariably develops into a credibility contest between the reporter and the communications team of the organisation under fire, with social media becoming a battlefield of damage limitation.

In recent years, the flow of "inside" information has been inhibited by a new relationship between employees and their press offices. Internal communications has been one of the big growth areas of modern PR, ensuring staff are on message – and know to direct journalists towards the professionals. Whistleblowers know they can often be traced by electronic means.

The control of the flow of information is everywhere – from television personality to civil servant the culture of referral to the employer's official line has become ingrained. With spontaneous reaction quotes so hard to come by it's no wonder Twitter has become such a rich source for newspapers.

Many will say that journalists have only themselves to blame for being cut off, having done much to undermine the public's trust. But a sense of frustration and exclusion felt in tabloid newsrooms was surely a major factor in driving some reporters to obtain their information by the devious and illegal means highlighted in the hacking scandal.

So the modern culture of rigid news management – somewhat anomalous in the 24-7 information age – should be taken into consideration by Leveson in his findings.

It's overly simplistic to see the relationship between reporter and PR as strictly an adversarial one of hacks versus flacks.

Many communications professionals recognise the value of media profile and manage to open doors that were previously closed, encouraging reluctant CEOs to step into the spotlight. Challenger brands crave attention and employ publicists to find it for them. I spend much of my day fending off PRs as they attempt to secure coverage for clients.

And there are many journalists who simply could not do their jobs without the legwork of PRs who provide the raw material for their stories. "It used to be a sport among journalists to piss off PRs because you didn't do a deal with the Devil," says Mark Borkowski, one of the public relations industry's most high-profile figures. "Now it's more of a collaborative process and under-resourced newspapers have become dependent on good relationships with PRs."

But that might not reassure the public, which has become sensitive to partial journalism. Neither can it be healthy that so many journalists see a top job in PR as the pinnacle of their future career. Former journalists such as Roland Rudd (Financial Times) and John Waples (Sunday Times) are among the most powerful figures in financial PR. How likely are we to discover the dark secrets of the City if all young business reporters aspire to follow a similar path?

Many Westminster journalists have come to see their destiny as a lobbying role – public affairs is another big PR growth area – or a political communications job, a sector that has become defined by former hacks such as Alastair Campbell, Andy Coulson and Craig Oliver. None of this strikes me as particularly healthy if the press is to act as a check on the powers that be.

Many journalists who try to cross the divide get a nasty shock as they discover that the skills required by a communications professional are not confined to interaction with the media. And some PRs feel the sector should recruit less from journalism – with its sullied reputation.

But PR has its dirty washing too. Although Leveson may not have taken much account of the influence of PR, the largely unregulated industry has been closely watching his inquiry. Anticipating a greater scrutiny of an increasingly powerful sector, the CIPR last week launched a Public Relations Register to try and ensure all PRs adhere to a code of conduct. It's not before time.

There's no 'storm porn' to reflect the Haitian horror

The images of devastation resulting from Hurricane Sandy's impact on the United States were as frightening as anything we saw from Katrina seven years ago or from the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake last year.

Our sense of horror was heightened by user-generated footage of buildings collapsing and Manhattan under water as one of the most technologically-advanced populations on earth turned its iPhones on the natural disaster. Storm porn, some called it.

Would that the people of Haiti, where Sandy inflicted proportionately more damage, had been so wired. But in a country still recovering from the 2010 earthquake there were few Haitians training video cameras on the hurricane while shouting: "Oh Bondye! Oh Bondye!" ("Oh my God! Oh My God!"). Media coverage reflected that.

"The reality is that getting pictures out of Haiti is very difficult," BBC world news editor Jon Williams tells me. "In Britain and America the great thing about mobile phones is you've now got millions of cameras so you are never going to miss something. But that's just not the case in countries that are at a much earlier stage of development."

Bun fight at the DG corral

The BBC Director-General George Entwistle doesn't seem the type to throw bread rolls but he might be tempted if he honours a lunch date this month with his predecessor, Greg Dyke.

The effervescent Dyke did the beleaguered incomer few favours on Thursday in an interview with the London Evening Standard in which he highlighted parallels between Entwistle's lack of curiosity over Newsnight's investigation into Jimmy Savile and his failure, when editor of Newsnight, to discover that one of his reporters, Susan Watts, had a taped interview with weapons inspector David Kelly at the height of the Iraq dossier scandal in 2003.

That furore cost Dyke his job. If Entwistle had known about the tape before Dr Kelly committed suicide, things may have turned out differently. "You'd have to ask him why he didn't know that, why didn't we know? All I can say is that we didn't. I didn't know him well enough to fight with him," said Dyke.

As to whether Entwistle should suffer the same fate as him, Dyke would only say: "He and [Lord] Patten will have to work out whether he's so damaged that actually he can't recover." Still feeling hungry George?

Twitter: @iburrell

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Web / Digital Analyst - SiteCatalyst or Google Analytics

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Data Scientist

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A data analytics are currently looking t...

Graduate Sales Executive

17.5k + Commission (£18.5k after probation period): ESI Media: You will be res...

PPC Account Managers

£25k - £30k (DOE): Guru Careers: Two expert PPC Account Managers are needed to...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game