OPINION: Media manipulation is a global concern

This is conundrum time. When we can eradicate most diseases by

inoculation, why do we exterminate farm animals by the thousand when

they catch foot-and-mouth disease, even though it's not a killer? Why

have animal rights activists uttered not a word, let alone a cry,

against this slaughter? Why has the Commonwealth not drummed out Robert

Mugabe for his utterly racist viciousness? After all, Nelson Mandela has

had the guts to tell the African National Congress that it is as

intolerant and corrupt as previous apartheid regimes.

Why did John Prescott get so ratty with BBC news presenter George

Alagiah when he gave him every opportunity to exonerate the railway

companies for the Selby crash? Can't 'Two Jags' bear to admit privatised

railways might sometimes be blameless? And why, if there was no reason

to doubt Peter Mandelson's honesty, did he resign a second time?

I doubt whether we shall ever receive satisfactory answers to these

questions. It therefore comes as a joy to me, as one who regularly goes

to Moscow to speak about living with the media in a free society, to be

able to refute the canard that the only good thing to come out of Russia

is the arts. They have, in fact, bred a courageous strain of PR. A

Russian PR company, Promaco, has just deliberately exposed Russian press

corruption. In sending details of the opening of a non-existent hi-fi

shop to 21 titles, it promised to pay if they used the story. Thirteen -

all named - promptly printed it without checking and invoiced Promaco

for anything from pounds 90 to pounds 1,200.

Promaco director Kiril Semyonov said his firm decided to expose a

situation in which the Russian press will print anything if the price is

right to secure a 'more civilised market'. Let's hope he succeeds - and

remains in business.

Meanwhile, let us never say it couldn't happen here. A variant of this

happens in Britain every day. Agents of the Government and the

opposition parties alike ritually brief journalists on the supposed

contents of speeches and policy developments. Yes, even on the budget.

These briefings are ritually and faithfully reproduced. But the actual

announcements are seldom closely compared with those that were trailed.

The press never advertises its mistakes. The British press is now wide

open to manipulation.

Why? More specifically, why have they abandoned their praiseworthy

scepticism since I met them daily? Let me just tell you what happened in

1983 when the Thatcher government decided to issue the Franks report on

the Falklands conflict without embargo? Some lobby journalists, up

against the clock, asked me to identify the key paragraphs for them. I

promised to do so.

Others caused Labour MP Tam Dalyell to kick up a tremendous fuss in the

House about this 'manipulation'. Another conundrum: why don't they make

them like that anymore?

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