BBC's Robert Peston puts the boot into the "professional bullshitters" of PR

"Some of my best friends are in PR," says the BBC's respected economics editor Robert Peston, before launching a scathing attack on the PR industry and its "pernicious" influence on news journalism.

Robert Peston: Fears the influence of PR (GL Portrait / Alamy)
Robert Peston: Fears the influence of PR (GL Portrait / Alamy)

Delivering the Charles Wheeler Lecture for the British Journalism Review last night, Peston spoke of "unhealthy deals" taking place between journalists and "enemy" PRs.

Stating that "some of my best friends are in PR" he nonetheless called PR people "professional bullshitters".

He claimed the PR industry had become "more machine-like, controlled – and in its slightly chilling way – professional".

An excerpt from the speech, which touches on other issues including native advertising and is run in full in The Guardian, can be read below:

"My final worry is that the relentless cycle of cost cutting at the traditional news media, and the very economical staffing of much of the new news media, gives growing and potentially worrying power to the public relations industry.

There are a number of aspects to this. Many news organisations now lack the resources to generate enough of their own high-quality stories to fill their editions. When I worked on the Sunday Telegraph a decade ago, the fax machine was strategically placed above the waste paper basket so that press releases went straight into what we called the round filing cabinet. Now newspapers are filled with reports based on spurious PR generated surveys and polls, simply to save time and money.

More disturbing, perhaps, PRs seems to have become more powerful and effective as gatekeepers and minders of businesses, celebrities and public or semi-public figures. In part, that is because in some news organisations there is a fetishisation of hiring young people, who supposedly understand the digital world and what youth want to read much better than people of my generation. But the problem with many of these younger journos is that they have few proper contacts and inadequate contacts. So if they don’t suck up to the PR, they don’t get the interview or the story. Which in turn means that unhealthy deals are being done, with the young hacks agreeing not to ask embarrassing questions and to send the copy back to the PR for approval. Also, PRs are routinely feeding questions to inexperienced journalists, and insisting on certain hashtags being used when stories are tweeted. All of this is hideous, and degrading to our trade.

What is more, the socialising between senior PRs and proprietors and senior news-media executives means it is increasingly common for PRs to think it is acceptable to ring their mates at the top of news organisations and ask for stories to be skewed, or – if already published – removed from websites. I know of a number of examples were harried executives have conceded.

Now to coin a phrase, some of my best friends are in PR. Which is not a joke by the way. And before anyone accuses me of being a po-faced, sanctimonious git (which well I may be) I have had quite a few great stories from PRs. But the very best came in the 1990s from PRs who were rogues and pirates – and those stories were usually spectacularly damaging to their clients. In other words, PRs were just sources to be milked like any another source. But today’s PR industry has become much more machine-like, controlled – and in its slightly chilling way – professional.

The point is that as a journalist I have never been in any doubt that PRs are the enemy. Pretty much my first action when I joined the FT in 1991 as head of financial services was to tell the team that they would be in serious trouble if I heard them talking on the phone to a corporate PR rather than a chief executive or chairman. My view has never changed.

I think the best explanation of why our mission as hacks is always to try to get around the PR, to sideline him or her, was made by Harry Frankfurt in his essay "On Bullshit", when he wrote:

"The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides … is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; … [The bullshitter] is neither on the side of the true, nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest with getting away with what he says."

Or to put it another way, many PRs can be seen both as more pernicious than the individual who consciously speaks the truth or the person who consciously lies – in that the liar knows that he is a liar, but many professional bullshitters have lost the capacity to see the difference between fact and fiction. I should point out that of course PRs aren’t the only bullshitters; but if they are not paid to bullshit, to present their clients in the best possible light, what are they being paid to do?

I did recently wonder whether we had reached one kind of high point of PR-driven madness when the Financial Conduct Authority – which has been bizarrely obsessed for a regulator with its public image – briefed the Telegraph about its muscular approach to beating up insurance companies, and then had to retract within hours when the article published by the Telegraph caused mayhem on the stock market.

Anyway here perhaps is the best evidence of how news organisations’ own ethical lapses in recent years – and not just phone hacking – has been devastating to how the public sees us. Which is that PRs who have claimed that they represent the defence of truth and decency against a predatory and defamatory media haven’t been seen as utterly ridiculous. God how our own stables have needed cleaning."

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