The Biter Bit

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The BBC’s Panorama programme is in a terrible tizz this week, defending its use of covert filming in North Korea and the involvement of a group of students as cover. The story seems to revolve around the issue of the consent of the students to what was happening around them and the role of their University, The London School of Economics.

I’m sure there must be many PR people quietly smiling at Panorama’s predicament having been on the receiving end of their attention in the past.

I speak here from personal experience, and whilst scadenfreud is a rather dirty thought process I can’t help feeling the biter is now being bit. My own experience of Panorams was in relation to a programme in which the organisation I was PRO for wasn’t the main focus of their story, but a key associated player. It was clear that they had decided what the story was before they gathered the information and did their filming with my organisation, and that they were quite happy to play fast and free with some of the facts to make them fit their storyline.

Both this, and much of what has emerged during the Leveson enquiry has made me question the power balance that exists between the media and the corporate bodies they report on. The public image the media like to promote is that as journalists they are the guardians of truth, that they are in some way special and that only they can be trusted to act on behalf of society as a whole.

The breakdown in media standards we have seen emerge into the public glare over recent months has tainted this image and as a result the power balance, which has in fact been heavily weighted in the media’s favour, may be shifting as the moral highground they have claimed for so long sinks to the level of any corporate body or profession trying to get along in the world.

Perhaps at the very least some journalists are now recognising that picking fault is easy – getting it right in the first place can be very very hard.

Hats off to Hacked Off

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The Hacked Off Campaign, set up to draw attention to press excesses and call for a new way of regulating the newspapers, seems to have pulled off a significant coup with its campaign for greater accountability for journalists in the written media in Britain.

It’s been announced today that all the three main parliamentary parties have finally agreed a way forward establishing a new, more robust approach to press regulation (see here BBC report) and that the main thrust of the Leveson Inquiry may become a reality.

Whether the agreed way forward gets implemented is still up for question as the media are likely to fight tooth and nail for weaker oversight (much as they have now with the in-house, Press Complaints Commission which has been described as as much use as a one legged man in a backside kicking competition), however in the light of their recent activity, with more revelations still coming out about their lack of ethics in news gathering, the tide of public opinion is very much against them.

In my training I work with people ranging from business executives to academics and charity workers – I have yet to come across anyone attending my workshops who comes with anything better than a jaundiced view of journalists and what to expect from them. Indeed many come with downright hostility and suspicion. Truthful and honest reporting of the facts is rarely at the top of their expectations and it would be a salutary experience I’m sure for journalists to attend one of my sessions to see how low their reputation lies with ordinary people. So significant is this, that perhaps 30% of the work I do to help organisations work with the media is focussed on building some understanding and sympathy for the way journalists work to reduce the fear and suspicion people have of them.

The problem for most journalists (who do act fairly and ethically) is they fail to understand that the extent to which the excessive behaviour of some of their brethren has tainted the whole profession, and that the only way to regain public confidence is to clearly demonstrate that decency, truth and honesty are at the heart of their trade. Having a robust regulator is one way to reassure the public that the beast can be domesticated. But the profession has to accept that it also has to embrace these changes and adopt a more ethical approach to news gathering if it is to regain public confidence.

The truth is, straightforward honest journalists, even investigative journalists, have nothing to fear from tighter regulation and everything to gain – because once again their readers will have faith in what has been written, rather than viewing everything with cynicism.

So hats off to Hacked off – not only have they done all those who have ben abused by journalistic excess  a huge service, but they may well have done journalism itself a favour too by forcing the first steps towards it regaining public trust and support.