Opinion: Mirror retraction puts Govt in driving seat

If politics really is, as the Prime Minister suggests, like football, then last week seems to have relegated the media forever to the second division against the Government's domination of the leagues. In management terms, the Daily Mirror had no option but to distance itself from Piers Morgan's defiant position over the soldier 'abuse' pictures last week, and force his resignation once it became clear that the photos of British soldiers 'abusing' Iraqi prisoners were fakes. But being wrong about the pictures doesn't mean he was wrong about the story, no matter how unpalatable that truth is. Running simulated pictures of real abuse is ethically wrong, but using this to bury the real truth about what our soldiers get up to may be worse.

The army ran some robust counter-offensive PR over the last week, none more so than the infantry division at the heart of the controversy, the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, whose powerful spokesman argued that 'the ego of one editor must not get in the way of the safety of our soldiers'.

But the Government has already admitted - after, and not before, publication of the pictures - that the Red Cross has submitted reports of British army excess - and the same regiment accused by the Mirror has one outstanding case against it of the alleged manslaughter of a 28-year-old Iraqi civilian.

I don't like rebuttal PR at the best of times, particularly when it is used to transfer blame rather than lay bare the truth. And truth is complex and not always absolute. If the Mirror had run the pictures with a caption saying 'this is what our soldiers are doing to Iraqis, posed by models', they would have made less global furore but they might not have been wrong.

The black-edged daily's front-page headline 'Sorry. We were hoaxed' has obvious parallels with the BBC's obsequious apology straight after the Hutton Inquiry when chairman Gavyn Davies resigned and it sacked D-G Greg Dyke. The PR strategy to 'draw a line' by apologising worked to some degree by stopping any further debate about the need to apologise.

It has become a ritual act of cleansing for the media to apologise, allowing all other argument to disappear in exchange for contrition. The fact is that the media, with the exception of the news agencies, all tend to editorialise their content, every day. Reporting becomes 'opinion', where readers are actively incited to feel one thing over another.

Truth comes when media and government alike admit complexity, and try and communicate that instead of simplifying things by taking pot shots at each other.

julia@hmclondon.co.uk, Julia Hobsbawm is professor of public relations at the London College of Printing

Kate Nicholas is on maternity leave.

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