Press scrutiny breeds good behaviour

A free press holds the PR industry and those it represents to account.

Francis Ingham: "At its best, journalism creates huge shifts in political power."
Francis Ingham: "At its best, journalism creates huge shifts in political power."

In a criticism of political comms in last month’s PRWeek, Adam Boulton suggested that since the days of Alastair Campbell, press officers manipulate media access; special advisers are employed to create walls of defence around politicians; and the Prime Minister shies away from serious interviews in favour of "soft environments" such as This Morning.

His comments reveal one basic truth – frustration with the level of access serious journalists get to politicians these days. Boulton’s disgruntlement at the PM choosing a cosy chat with Phillip Schofield over a verbal punch-up with himself represents a worrying dichotomy. Politicians using populist platforms do so to avoid the elitism of the Newsnight/Today bubble – highly important as record levels of people say they feel disenfranchised from politics. But they experience far less serious scrutiny during such appearances.

At its best, journalism creates huge shifts in political power. It can destroy careers – sometimes rightly so – with revelations of expenses misuse or cash for access deals. It can also change legislation for the better by exposing shortcomings in places such as the NHS.

Such crises are a pain in the neck for press officers who, under the leadership of government comms tsar Alex Aiken, are being rapidly upskilled so that they can use a wider variety of platforms to communicate. He rightly calls for a public sector that is digital by def­ault, which will enable faster and more targeted responses to crises.

But would we PR folk, in the grand scheme of things, wish to be in a world where political or governmental crises aren’t unearthed? Not only does the odd scandal make the world a far more interesting place, but I firmly believe that scrutiny breeds good behaviour, and there is no better a deterrent from a crisis than good behaviour.

Boulton fears that people are losing faith in professional journalism, that they don’t trust it or think it’s worth their while consuming. We have a serious problem if that is the case.

In the Leveson aftermath, many are concerned that the media might not be protected against interference from politicians, which could lead to a toothless press. A free press holds the PR industry and those it represents to account, and I believe that the healthiest environment is one in which there is public trust in our comms.

That’s why I support the level of regulation planned by the Independent Press Standards Organisation – tough, but not chilling in its effect on journalism.

Francis Ingham is PRCA director-general and ICCO executive director

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