PR needs a strong and independent Fourth Estate

So, as predicted here a couple of weeks ago, News International CEO Rebekah Brooks failed to survive the maelstrom of controversy and criticism around the British tabloid newspaper scandal that is rapidly spreading over the Atlantic to the USA.

So, as predicted here a couple of weeks ago, News International CEO Rebekah Brooks failed to survive the maelstrom of controversy and criticism around the British tabloid newspaper scandal that is rapidly spreading over the Atlantic to the USA.

She eventually fell on her sword today after numerous prompts from the likes of British Prime Minister David Cameron, media industry analysts, and a salivating competitive media reveling in the misfortune of News International and its high-profile but salacious brands the News of the World and The Sun – both of which Brooks edited during the phone-hacking and police payments scandals that initiated the furor.

She had to go. But the delay was in part due to the fact that it is inconceivable she doesn't know where all the bodies are buried, not only at News International, but also within the portals of the British Government. As numerous commentators have pointed out, the relationship between the editors and proprietors of papers such as The Sun and NotW has become uncomfortably close for those who believe in the independence of the Fourth Estate and a free press.

Some elements of the British press have crossed the Rubicon from being an observer and commentator to being a far too active participant in the political process.

Descriptions of Brooks swanning in and out of Cameron and the Tories' operations room at political party conferences, as if she was part of "Team Cameron," illustrate how close the relationship had become. And Cameron resisted repeated attempts from within and without his party to get him to dispense with the services of another former NotW editor – the now-arrested Andy Coulson – who he controversially appointed as his head of communications.

When News International decided to close the 2.6 million circulation 168-year-old paper, journalists at the NotW felt they were being sacrificed to save Brooks' career - an attempt that, if true, was proved to have failed today. It was self-preservation that eventually forced Cameron to come out against her in public as well.

The love-in between the British press and politicians was not confined to the Tories or News International's media empire (and it is difficult to believe other papers haven't used similar illegal and unethical tactics to the NotW.) In diaries published after he was sacked for publishing fake pictures of soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners on the front cover of Labour-supporting rival tabloid The Mirror, Piers Morgan, yet another former NotW editor, now a CNN chat show host, tells how he was a regular guest at Number 10 when Tony Blair was in power – a mindblowing 56 meetings over 11 years.

Labour was particularly sensitive to the impact tabloids could have after an election day front cover headline in The Sun in 1992 when party leader Neil Kinnock was taking on Margaret Thatcher trumpeted “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.” Two days later, after a Tory victory in a close vote, the paper's splash declared “It's The Sun wot won it” (excuse the British colloquialisms.)

Prime ministers became so sensitive to the influence of the tabloid press that they took to ringing the editors before embarking on major initiatives to gauge how policies would go down with the papers.

The PR world, or at least, favored elements of it, was also heavily entwined with this new brand of journalism, and became willing accomplices in a high-level game of “you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.” But, as we continually report in PRWeek, the world of media is changing around the traditional bastions of the press – often bypassing its old-fashioned reliance on grace and favor.

As the News International scandal spreads to the US, threatening Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation empire, and the FBI instigates an inquiry into possible hacking of the phones of 9/11 vicitims, the tide may be shifting away from this all-too-comfy relationship. Politicians, admittedly driven by a disgusted public, are finally rediscovering their moxie.

The Fourth Estate must go back to being independent, ethical, and less partisan if it is to retain the engagement and respect of populations who no longer rely on it as their sole source of information. A free press is vital if we are to have a strong and robust media environment – which is ultimately what PR practitioners want to engage with if their messages are to be credible.

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