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
Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.