When the truth isn't out there and no one cares
On The Press: So journalists and PRs aren't in this together? Tell that to 'Big Brother'
Sunday 21 May 2006
No, not the first sneering piece of the Big Brother season. Too easy. No one gives a monkey's for the sneerers, except fellow sneerers, and Big Brother himself is too big to notice. Seven million viewers on opening night, apparently the best ever, is more relevant.
Big Brother represents another dimension of convergence - the concept that preoccupies media movers and shakers these days. It converges TV and print, not to mention the mobile phone, and it converges journalism and PR. It converges fiction and reality, and calls it reality. And Big Brother is Big Business - ratings, phone call income, spin-offs.
As the BB season kicks off, I have been reading Julia Hobsbawm's new collection of essays, Where the Truth Lies - Trust and Morality in PR and Journalism (Atlantic Books). The publicist has brought plenty of publicity, and some controversy, on herself by starting an organisation called Editorial Intelligence. The premise of this, and the book, is that journalists and PRs are mutually dependent and share responsibility for the contempt or esteem in which they are held by the public.
Some journalists have found the premise offensive. The industry of professional political and corporate communicators is nothing to do with journalism, they will argue. Which is nonsense: ask any journalist when he or she last spoke to a spokesman.
Press coverage of BB demonstrates the lack of separation of powers - of the press, of PR. Julian Henry's essay on entertainment PR in Where the Truth Lies talks of the overlap of "good" and "bad" information. Good information, he says, is not the truth - just a version of events that stands up. Bad information is wrong but usually doesn't matter. "Media, celebrities and the marketing community all have a vested interest in sustaining this busy and enthusiastic trade in Bad Information."
The build-up to BB showed the journalists and the PRs working in harmony, probably oblivious to whether the information was good or bad. The red-tops battled it out, led by the Daily Star, self-styled "official Big Brother paper", and closely followed by The Sun.
Both papers put the word "exclusive" on most of their BB stories. The Sun revealed "exclusively" that one of this year's contestants was a "cross-dressing Tourette's victim who loves kinky sex". The Star revealed "exclusively" that another contestant had "stunned show bosses with her steamy antics in a dummy run".
And then the show started for "real" and both papers showed their intentions - two-thirds of The Sun's front page - "14 freaks, 13 weeks"; the whole of the Star's front page - "They're all mad for it". But by this stage other papers were moving in, like the Daily Mail: "Big Brother is full of show-offs and sexists. No change there, then."
The "serious papers" will pay little or no attention in the early stages, possibly allowing themselves a little sneer now and again. But watch them. Once the characters are better known and their outrageous behaviour has been discussed on the phone-ins, when they have acquired the quasi-celebrity status they all desperately seek, the "qualities" will slip in the odd mention.
As the weeks pass, more "information" will emerge on the contestants as friends and lovers are unearthed (and possibly paid) by the red-tops. The information may be true or false, good or bad. No one will much mind. As Mr Henry says: "The publicist in the entertainment business has become a fully functioning partner in the business of producing newspapers and TV and radio shows. We are a part of the plot because we are not just the point of access but in some cases the co-author of the story."
For Channel 4, the show's producers and Davina McCall, the one thing that matters is that BB is talked about for 13 weeks. For the contestants, it is being on TV for as long as possible. For the papers, it is sales. This is convergence run riot. Everyone wins.
It doesn't matter where the truth lies because BB is neither true nor false. It's absurd.
Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield
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