The danger of putting the news cart too far ahead of the horse

Long ago I heard a prominent chap whose name I can’t recall say on TV that he never read anything in a newspaper which predicted what was going to happen. He didn’t regard that as news, only speculation.

Long ago I heard a prominent chap whose name I can’t recall say on

TV that he never read anything in a newspaper which predicted what was

going to happen. He didn’t regard that as news, only speculation.



This greatly speeded up his reading of the morning’s press and gave him

a firmer grasp of reality. As a press secretary at the time, I admired

his approach and greatly envied him the luxury of his discipline.



Assuming he is still with us, he won’t waste much time these days on the

press. Much of today’s fare is a forecast of what is going to happen

rather than a record of what actually did occur. No politician now

greatly surprises us or even his party conference. They ’trail’ their

speeches the night before. No policy announcement comes fresh to the

ears of Parliamentarians who are supposed to be told first because they

hold the money bags. Most of them are extensively leaked. So are all

kinds of other announcements such as last weekend’s insight into Lord

Neill’s report on the funding of political parties.



There is nothing fundamentally new in this. Leaks have always been with

us. Some PR professionals have always seen ’two bites at the cherry’ in

it, that is, a double dose of coverage. Ministers of all political

parties have sought to ’prepare’ public opinion, as they describe it.

Chancellors have been known to add a dash of disinformation to keep back

Budget goodies.



Invariably summiteers have put the boot into other political leaders

before the event, seldom at it. But making today’s news yesterday has

never been so systematic. And in Government ’trailing’ was last year

made obligatory by the Government Information and Communication

Service’s new code.



I have never been keen on this ’virtual reality’ newsmaking. For one

thing, it enables your opponents to do a better demolition job while the

issue is still hot news. It is also open to abuse which is why it is

liked by PR people. It enables them to flog a line to journalists who

are desperate for a story, especially one which anticipates the event.

It puts PROs in the driving seat. They can almost dictate the story.



But it isn’t the whole story. If it is excessively partial, it may

damage the PRO’s credibility as a ’trailer’. On the other hand, it might

not.



I often wonder whether journalists are now more concerned about getting

a story rather than an accurate story. If their preoccupation is with a

story, then the PRO is king. Certainly, the balance between journalist

and PRO has shifted in the PRO’s favour. So, when will editors

rediscover their refusal to be ’manipulated’ which only a decade ago

nearly led to the break-up of the Lobby? Perhaps when Tony Blair becomes

a dead parrot too.



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