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
Getty
Show Hide image

Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.