Renew’s Heather Astbury gives some advice for media management in a guide that might especially appeal to our members and candidates nervous at the prospect of engaging with journalists.
“There’s no point in doing media interviews because the reporter will twist everything you say and make you look bad anyway.” This is a statement I have heard so often – and it is simply not true.
Having once been a journalist, I know the vast majority are hardworking, dedicated and professional. They take their reputation for accuracy and fair reporting seriously; in a competitive field where mistakes can be punished by legal action, reporters with vendettas won’t last long.
My journalism course contained a significant legal element, with contempt of court and defamation (libel) being subjects we were expected to have mastered. We were taught to keep our notebooks as evidence of the information we had gathered in our interviews and the need to interview people from all sides of an argument to ensure fairness was drummed into us. If we couldn’t prove a story was true, fair and accurate, we couldn’t publish it.
That contrasts sharply with social media where ‘citizen journalism’ has meant anyone can publish almost anything without fear of reprisal. There is certainly not the level of scrutiny and standards of reporting required of career journalists. So why does the media get such a hard time?
Ignoring suggestions of vested interests of media owners - even if true this wouldn’t affect how they reported on the majority of businesses – I believe the feeling arises because potential interviewees are nervous about making a mistake and looking foolish, so they use this argument as an excuse not to engage with the media at all. Also, people often have unrealistic expectations when it comes to getting media coverage.
Reporters have a job to do, just like the rest of us. For some, their role is to inform and educate the public about subjects that are of interest and importance to them. For others, it is to entertain. It isn’t the job of any journalist to promote your company, your product or you personally. Media outlets expect you to pay for that service and that is where the lines between editorial and advertising content are drawn. Whereas with advertising you simply pay for the amount of space or time your company wants and you provide the content, the editorial process is entirely different and one you have much less control over.
Firstly, you need to convince the reporter that you have a story to tell that will be of interest to the public. One of the main requirements is that your story is actually news, i.e. it is new. If you are trying to get coverage for something that happened three months ago or has already been all over social media, forget it; reporters won’t be interested.
Once you’ve convinced the reporter, they need to persuade their editor to run the story. At this point the reporter’s reputation is on the line with their editor. If they can’t verify the facts or aren’t able to get commentary from you or third parties on the record, the story won’t run.
On the newsdesk of a national daily paper, I had to write three to four stories on completely unrelated topics per day. I had to speak to a variety of different experts for each story to ensure the story was accurate and fair. It was a rush and it’s easy to see why mistakes are made. The people who were available and willing to talk, who called me back when they said they would and who fulfilled their promises were my best friends. The flipside was that I didn’t have time to wait around for people, so if my top interview subject wasn’t available, I had to get someone else.
The ease of getting content published on social media may have made us lazy. Why spend all the time and effort required to be covered in the media when you can post anything you like as often as you want on Twitter? People generally still trust the media more than social media commentators and having your news covered in a top title can enhance your reputation enormously.
If you follow the rules, dealing with the media can be a hugely rewarding and valuable experience. Don’t miss out.
As October 31st draws ever nearer, a clear vision for post-Brexit Britain is proving stubbornly illusive. So far it’s been all too easy to lay out what we most definitely do not want (backstop, anybody?) but coming up with an identity to carry us into the future is looking to be a great deal more difficult.
So what’s it to be? As a nation, what are the things we truly value and wish to protect? Aside from the obvious quips involving tea or a penchant for queueing, the British really do have a lot to be proud of. As a country generally not afraid to speak its mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that among these are a profound appreciation for freedom of speech and free expression.
Press freedom is often revered as the jewel in the metaphorical crown of Britain’s commitment to free speech. According to the New York Times, "Britain has a long tradition of a free, inquisitive press", despite this never having been constitutionally codified. They’re not wrong either; even in very recent memory, the mainstream media (or “MSM” as it has been latterly and derogatorily referred to) has played a critical role in exposing wrong-doings and holding those responsible to account. Whether it be antisemitism in the Labour Party, Windrush, or the not-so-above-board role of Cambridge Analytica in the Leave.EU campaign, journalistic integrity and eagerness have a lot to be celebrated for.
Recently, the Kim Darroch row has returned the mainstream news media - and the role it plays in our democracy - to the nation’s attention. The publication of leaked material written by the UK’s ambassador to the US has been met with a warning by the MET; that doing so may constitute a criminal offence. Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu cautioned that media outlets could face prosecution if they published any further leaked government communications.
Politicians and journalists in their droves have rallied against what has been widely viewed as a direct attack on press freedom. Tory leadership hopeful Jeremy Hunt said in a tweet that he would “defend to the hilt the right of the press to publish those leaks if they receive them & judge them to be in the public interest: that is their job.”
Indeed. The sudden operatic flurry is commendable, but let’s step back and take a look at the wider context for a second. Despite the media’s many triumphs, it might be worth taking notice of the fact that in this year’s World Press Freedom Index, the UK currently occupies 33rd place. That puts us behind the likes of Samoa, Lithuania, Namibia and South Africa, and easily among the worst performers in Western Europe.
Freedom of press is already under threat - recent events are merely an illustration of why. Journalists’ right to publish leaked content is part of the problem, yes. But there are myriad other ways in which the ‘MSM’ is facing encroachment by a wider political conversation that has lurched towards authoritarianism in other ways too.
MPs have threatened to restrict the use of end-to-end encryption technologies like Whatsapp. The conflict between politicians and press post-Leveson inquiry still looms large; the Data Protection Bill, passed last year, gave antagonists of the press an opportunity to further punish the news media for its collective failures, both real and perceived. Amendments to the bill tabled in the Lords sought to make news outlets liable for the cost to both sides incurred in privacy cases. While necessary for other reasons, the revised bill offers scanty exemptions for journalists from data protection laws.
None of this is to say that the media should be granted a free pass in every instance - after all, journalists make mistakes, the 2011 phone hacking scandal being perhaps the most noteworthy example of erroneous judgement in the media. Like others in the public domain, journalists must be held to account - but placing unnecessary restrictions on journalistic access to information and reporting rights is by no means in the public interest, and has no place in an inclusive, liberal democracy of the future.
It’s often said that a free press is essential to a healthy democracy. When compared to standards elsewhere in the world, the British press looks to be doing pretty decently.
We shouldn’t get too carried away, though; in the absence of a Xinhua News equivalent, control over our national media has been granted to an entirely different (though perhaps equally troubling) faction. Most British media outlets are controlled by a tiny and very wealthy elite, who are typically as elusive as they are unaccountable.
It was Napoleon who once argued that “four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” Judging by the situation today, he seems to have been on to something.
News broadcasters wield tremendous power over politicians, who for the most part, do everything they can to avoid unfavourable coverage. It’s easy to see why, given the considerable influence papers can have on voting behaviour.
With SW1 at their heels, media moguls are free to present whatever version of events they so choose – however far this may deviate from the truth. Indeed, Brexit has made this more obvious than perhaps ever before.
It’s no secret that some of Brexit’s major backers have already got richer as the rest of the country’s economy has wavered post-2016. All the while, it’s been easy enough to funnel public anger towards Westminster and Brussels and away from their own misgivings – unchallenged by a government more than happy to dance to their tune.
If anyone needs convincing, they need only look back on Westminster’s response to 2016. Its unquestioning insistence on respecting the referendum result, despite the serious legal failures of both major Leave campaigns, is telling to say the least. In any other circumstance, such violations would have been more than enough to entirely cripple any mandate. In fact, the only thing preventing courts nullifying the result altogether was the fact that it wasn’t legally binding.
Yet, politicians were complicit and the right-wing press in particular was handed full control of the narratives surrounding the referendum. Why? Put simply, being tarnished with the ‘Enemies of The People’ brush doesn’t exactly strengthen your electoral prospects.
Of course, we’ve come to accept a level of bias in major publications as being pretty much par for the course. Most papers are unashamedly prejudiced in their political leanings, and after all, sensationalism is how they sell their wares.
It’s no secret that people are drawn to papers that create echo chambers for their own views – a problem no doubt, but the phenomena’s very existence relies, at least, on a conscious public awareness of newspaper bias. We’re perhaps less susceptible to spurious headlines from the usual suspects, but they’re by no means the only offenders.
Worse, arguably, is the bias that now exists within broadcasters with an explicit duty to be neutral. I’m referring, of course, to the BBC. BBC complaints have reportedly been flooded by remain voters angry at the lack of coverage given to pro-Remain MPs and anti-Brexit marches.
Despite his recent outburst on BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Farage has a lot to be thankful for. Even his most pernicious claims, and those of others on his side, continue to go largely unchallenged despite their (in some cases obvious) untruth. Lest we not forget, talk of leaving the single market was “absolute madness” until an overnight U-turn in the direction of a no-deal; a decision that flew seemingly under the radar of the mainstream media.
Last week, an episode of a BBC panel show was cancelled, due to it featuring the interim leader of new pro-Remain party Change UK. The feature was deemed inappropriate to run during election time. Meanwhile, Farage’s countless fish-related photo-ops continue to get air time (needless to say, the fish do not look best pleased).
While it might be doubtful that the BBC is harbouring an express pro-Brexit bias, it’s easy to see where it’s unwillingness to challenge key Leave supporters has come from. The corporation is consistently under pressure from the reactionary right, and its fearfulness of this is palpable.
It is hard to imagine a world in which even the most popular frontmen of Brexit will escape the process unscathed; as the realities set in and public opinion turns against them, the democratic process will hold them to account. But writers, journalists, media fat-cats – the less discernible architects of Brexit – are unlikely to suffer the same consequences. People will be buying The Sun long after Rees-Mogg is cast into political irrelevancy.
We must maintain a free press, but there is no freedom without responsibility. Our media is responsible for public education, which we cannot do without if we are to place trust in democracy.