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<On to June 2012

Rather a thin month on the blogging front, this...

1 May
Sorting the wheat from the chaff

News gathering in an age of managed information isn’t easy, which is why the Leveson inquiry and the MPs’ investigation of News International have a tricky line to tread. In my slightly arcane end of the journalism business, it’s got harder and harder over the years to get straight information out of people, organisations and companies. So without condoning illegality, and with considerable misgivings about fuelling the apparent public appetite for sensation, I can see why corners get cut and technology is exploited by those for whom the job is to get stories.

In my area, which isn’t often controversial, obfuscation and obstruction are now often default modes in business and industry even to the simplest enquiry. I’ve always rather liked the line that the job of the editor is to sort the wheat from the chaff – and then to print the chaff. But there’s now so much artificial chaff-generation going on that finding any wheat is often more luck than judgement.

Let me give you three instances from the past 24 hours of how it works.

The latest of the three is that, in rather less than an hour around midday today, I received 21 press releases by email from BIS, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. A busy day at BIS? No, not particularly, as there was substantial duplication in the 21 and many of them were also notices that had been sent out at various times over the past week or so. Open them up, and, if you’re of journalistic bent, the first thing you’ll look for is the date: no one wants old news. But that’s precisely what these all were. There had been a batch of eight or nine yesterday morning at about dawn: all of these came again today. What this does, of course, is to make me suspicious: is there a press notice that BIS doesn’t really want us to see cunningly concealed within this smokescreen of activity?

Instance No 2 is an increasingly common response to me phoning someone to ask for information of an uncontroversial kind. No thanks, they say, you’ll want money from us and in any case we don’t let anyone write about us unless we approve what’s being written. I can protest my (fairly) impeccable journalistic credentials, stress the church-and-state separation of journalism from advertising that I’ve always practised, and tell them that I’m pretty much the proverbial gift-horse whose dentistry they’re inspecting. But often these days it’s to no avail. Control is the thing: more important to many people than opportunity. Two separate and different organisations turned down my offer of free publicity for themselves yesterday. Too dangerous, they said. (Unlikely ever to take the world by storm with that kind of attitude, I thought, though I didn’t say so.)

The third phenomenon here is an oddity in the information that gets released: it’s often not information at all. Go on to corporate or university or institutional websites looking for press info these days, and as often as not, you’ll find links to already-published stuff. Instead of putting out news information, these sites report on where they’ve been reported. So any “news” is secondhand; you can hear a clip of what their expert said on the radio, or read a cutting from someone else’s publication. But you can’t talk to them yourself or ask your own questions. Or get anything new. This, I suspect, is often a function of the fact that PR people measure success these days in terms of a spurious and pernicious measure of editorial coverage, in which editorial column inches are “priced” as if they were paid advertising. So “placing” stuff is more lucrative than just releasing stuff – even though any monetary value adduced from this is purely notional.

None of this makes waves in the same way that Leveson and the News International stuff does, and nor should it. But it is, to my mind, symptomatic of wider malaise in relations between press, public and puffery that these headline events are also but an aspect of. If, as I believe, good journalism of all kinds has a value, then the factors that are making it more and more difficult to do are not only of the journalists’ making. When everyone wants to control everything, nothing happens.

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