Thursday, May 21, 2009

The media, sources, access and advertising

My sermon today considers two (former) magazine journalists and editors, Danny Kelly (NME, Q, Football365, etc) and John Lloyd (FT Magazine). But first ...

One side issue raised by the Westminster expenses furore is whether journalists get too cosy with their sources. I cannot believe that lobby correspondents and political editors did not have a good idea of what was going on before the data-whistle was blown but one reason why the storm has had such an impact is because it came out of a clear blue sky. On the other hand, I suppose it is possible that the Telegraph's reporters were able to do such a swift and thorough job because they did know where to look for the bodies (or rather, whose accounts to look at – after they had rubbished the Labour hierarchy, of course).

Naturally, stories have to be substantiated ("stood up") and perhaps it was the lack of hard evidence that prevented journalists from writing these stories before.

Or perhaps it was because every journalist, and especially those who have developed a speciality, fears losing access to good contacts. This can happen at an individual level, ("I'm not talking to you"), a corporate level (for example, Sir Alex Feguson not talking to the BBC) or a PR level (the subject is withdrawn behind a fortress of spin and obfuscation). Whichever, it means the same – no interviews, no quotes, no stories and your competitors getting an advantage.

This does not just happen in politics, of course – celebrity, showbiz, music, film, business (see yesterday's post on this topic) and sport are fields in which "access" is key. It was the latter that concerned Danny Kelly last night during his show on TalkSport radio. Within a wider discussion of whether football fans had the right to access/question/comment on players and managers, Kelly and his sidekick Stan Collymore (a man who has, with some reason, been hounded by the media at certain points in his career) discussed the issue of journalists and press conferences with veteran manager Bobby Gould.

Gould, who clearly knows how to answer a question, made some very perceptive points about the way journalists create a single narrative (ie they collectively decide what "the story" is) and follow that through. Anyone taking a different line is likely to be carpeted by their editor if rivals all go for the same angle. This leads to very uniform reporting and almost certainly allows a media-savvy manager to manipulate the coverage.

At the same time, Kelly pointed out how soft most questioning is, attributing this to a fear of losing access and/or not wanting to lose the "friendship" or "respect" of the person being questioned. No wonder, was his opinion, that fans want better information.

There is another aspect of this for small, specialised magazines such as the one I used to publish. Very often the sources you go to for the best stories are also the same people who run the businesses that your title depends on. We all know there should be a firewall between advertising and editorial and we all also know that without the ads our readers won't be getting any magazine at all. Tricky but not insuperable if carefully managed.

Where does John Lloyd fit into this? Well, back when he was editor of the FT's magazine he wrote a book called What The Media Are Doing To Our Politics. The main thesis of this book was that
Journalists and broadcasters have become self-serving, power-crazed hypocrites who exaggerate, sensationalise and distort almost every aspect of the news they supposedly 'report'. And their prime target is the honourable profession of politician, those selfless individuals whose only thought is to serve their country. (Taken from Frank Kane's Observer review)
Nowadays Lloyd runs the Reuters Institute For the Study of Journalism, at Oxford University, a body that has become well known for ... for ... Perhaps for not quite living up to expectations. I'd like to know how he views our politics in the light of our media's latest attack. (But then I can ask him directly in a few weeks because he is an external examiner at the place where I work.)

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