Press releases erode newspapers’ credibility

Today’s news has been brought to you by the letters C and V.

The launch of Churnalism.com this week – and the Larry the Cat Facebook hoax with which Chris Atkins fooled the Daily Mail and BBC Radio Norfolk – have been met with a bit of a bristly snort from a few hacks, and it's pretty understandable. Hands up, all journalists who are absolutely certain they've never copied and pasted a press release that might, on reflection, have been a bit whiffy . . . anybody . . . no? No. We've all been there. There but for the grace of God, and all that.

But tell someone who's a punter rather than a journo that it's pretty standard practice to Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V huge chunks of a press release into a story, sometimes leaving the original words (and spelling mistakes) completely intact, but slap an intro on the top and then put your byline on it, as if you wrote it all, and you'll get a slightly different reaction. I call it the "Really?" face. People look at you as if to say: "Really? Is that what you do? And you expect me not to punch you in the face, really hard?"

Go on to tell them that the quotes in stories often aren't anything to do with patient phone calls to key contacts whom you've grilled like Paxman, but are, instead, also copied and pasted from a press release, and their withering "Really?" face will only intensify. Go further, and tell them that it's not entirely unheard of to go hopping around websites looking for stories, then slapping huge chunks of them into your story, making it seem as if you've interviewed the person concerned, before once again plopping your byline on top, and they'll start to develop something of a crinkly mouth. Or, even worse, a look of faint pity.

It's not just the tabloids, obviously. And not always the tabloids. And not everyone in the tabloids does this. And it's not necessarily always wrong, even if people are doing it. But that's a bit beside the point when you realise how non-journalists look upon this kind of thing. To those not steeped in the glorious craft it looks a bit, well, easy.

Everything else suddenly seems suspicious. If the fake Larry the Cat story got in, what else seems less than plausible? What about the fox cub that climbed a really tall building – by using the stairs, I hasten to add, rather than climbing up with little foxy crampons or parachuting from a passing stork? Is all that real? I suppose it might be, but I'm a little wary of stories involving foxes, for some reason.

Ah yes. And what of this week's new Twitter star Binkie, whose delightfully posh wedding plans have now disappeared from the Telegraph's website? Is the whole thing a spoof, possibly designed to provoke class war, or is it just Binkie being Binkie, as only Binkie can be?

Sometimes I can't tell any more. And I suppose that's the problem. A bit of Ctrl+C and Cntrl+V here, a bit of non-checking there? It's nothing deadly serious; of course it isn't. No one died because a corny old press release got lobbed into a newspaper. But that's not the problem that punters have with this kind of thing. It erodes the credibility of everything around it, I think.

At least, that's what the press release says, anyway.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era