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

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