The special relationship
Where the Truth Lies: trust and morality in PR and journalism
Edited by Julia Hob
Julia Hobsbawm is, by instinct and professional self- interest, a peacemaker. She sits comfortably in a world of forums and summits and international conferences. Recently, she set up an organisation called Editorial Intelligence, which promised to bring together the best minds in journalism and PR. It was a grown-up but false proposition, and naturally it ended in a great big punch-up. Cristina Odone, writing in the Guardian, accused the journalists who signed up to Editorial Intelligence of being appeasers. How could the two tribes ever be friends when they were founded on opposing principles? Journalists uncovered the truth and PRs repressed it. There was a hurried series of resignations. Some journalists claimed that the commercial nature of the venture - disguised lobbying - had not been made clear. Is Editorial Intelligence a microcosm of the doomed relationship between PR and journalism?
Hobsbawm has now edited a collection of essays, Where the Truth Lies, on the special relationship. The title is heavy with ambiguity: the relationship between PR and journalism is largely hidden and slightly shameful, and the analogy of the mistress recurs throughout the book. The PRs who contribute call for transparency, recognition and equal ethical status with journalists (the last is surely a small thing to ask). Some of the essayists, such as John Lloyd, are known PR-sympathisers. To Lloyd, the vulgarity and hysteria of the press make it resemble an embarrassing relative. Like Hobsbawm, he is attracted to commissions and conferences and exchanges - the mark of someone who has fundamentally tired of British newspapers. Others, such as Peter Oborne, have a healthy 18th- century view of journalism: hacks simply exist to cause trouble.
The most amusing, if predictable, part of the book is the exchange of insults between PRs and journalists. PRs, according to hacks, are manipulative, dishonest and sleazy. Journalists, say PRs, are lazy, shoddy and drunk. I very much liked Sarah Benton's line in invective against journalism - the more so because she is a lecturer in the subject. "To enter the media world of artifice, hag-ridden by envy and schadenfreude and malice, is to agree to the rules of a game in which real facts are illusory and what matters is sensation." So far, so good.
The challenge to journalism's claim to uncover the truth is more unsettling. Hobsbawm asserts that public relations is now "journalism's dominant source". Has PR become a kind of sat nav, rendering journalists incapable of finding their own stories? Is tabloid journalism merely a matter of doling out cheques to Max Clifford? There is certainly some evidence that journalism's truth-telling mission is in decline. Diligent back-bench MPs have proven more effective at unmasking political scandals in recent months than broadsheet journalists. There is also unnerving competition from the public, and the Guardian's Emily Bell writes here about the relationship between journalism and the internet, quoting Dan Gillmor's truism that "there is always someone closer to the story than you".
PRs may have become journalists' benefactors, but the gifts are not free: Julian Henry, an entertainment PR, writes candidly about the "casual blackmail" that takes place and the loss of the "concept of truth rooted in neutrality". Moreover, those areas of journalism less affected by PR, such as foreign and parliamentary reporting, are the ones being squeezed the most. We already know about PR's control of entertainment and fashion journalism; the rise of financial PR in dictating business journalism deserves more attention.
In this context, Simon Jenkins's essay is a refreshing return to first principles. "Journalism best defines itself by a commitment to accuracy," he writes. He warns against the distinctions between journalism and PR becoming blurred. There is no parallel. PR is about selling, while journalism is not primarily about profit. I fear that he is deaf to the hammering at the gate.
The book does not answer the question posed in its title, but it brings together an impressive selection of writers (in the interests of transparency I should mention that one of them, Kim Fletcher, is my husband) and, as Hobsbawm might say, it is food for thought. I particularly recommend the essays by Janine di Giovanni and Andrew St George. It also reminds us that authentic journalism cannot be tamed or subdued: it is hit-and-miss, slapstick, occasionally sublime. All the rest is public relations.
Sarah Sands is a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph