Come and join us spinning in the middle. The water's lovely

24 April 2006

Neville Hobson is something of a latecomer in his declaration of war on the middlemen of the media. Curiously titled the "real symbiosis between PR and journalism" rather than "hacks, get your tanks off my lawn", Hobson takes as his springboard a column written by John Lloyd in last weekend's Financial Times, largely to argue for his decision to become involved in Julia Hobsbawm's Editorial Intelligence project.

Lloyd's argument in a nutshell:

Journalism cannot understand itself unless it understands what public relations has done to it; how murky and grubby the relationship can become, with the connivance of both, and how the relationship might work to the benefit of citizens who should be told something like the truth.

Hobson uses this to argue that newspapers don't contain truth. (And he uses the old hack's standby "some might say..." to present it.) What you need, claims Hobson, is the new form of direct communications. Thanks to the miracle of the Interweb, ordinary folks in the street can get the truth straight from the horse's mouth. Just look at that nice David Miliband. He's got a blog and he's using it to deliver the The Truth to The Public. Actually, he's delivering the kind of platitudes that the Thought for the Day segment on the Today programme on Radio 4 served up before it got a working-over a couple of years back.

Miliband has discovered that, with the Internet, there is no need to go through the Filter, as George W Bush, in a rare moment of lucidity, described the US media. It is at this point that I began to wonder where Hobson, who has been blogging for a while, has been for the last few years. This is by no means a new argument in the blogging environment.

The transparency argument goes: if only those pesky people in the middle got out of the way, everything would be dandy. Well, the public has had the choice now for a few years. Never before has the public had access to so much direct corporate or government information. The public does not need the versions spun by the media - the raw materials are all there. And they remain as dull and impenetrable as before the day the doors to this electronic cave of wonders were thrown open. What Hobson conveniently forgets is that the spinning performed by press and PRs does not happen in a vacuum. It is all done with more than a nod to the audience. No-one would tell a market analyst they want more spin; but that is what many people do by their actions.

The Internet gave the US administration a more efficient way of going around the press and communicate direct with the public. No more pesky Filter types. They got to bang their heads against the no-comment machine of Scott McClellan. So, what actually happened. Did the US publlic get more truth? No, of course not. It got even more published spin than ever before. Visible political discourse in the US now consists of two polarised camps of bloggers taking lumps out of each other over every statement made by Republican or Democrat. Curiously, even given unprecedented access to direct information, most of them link to the New York Times or the Washington Post. Why? People seem to like it like that.

To say that removing the middlemen will suddenly allow the truth to shine through is nonsense. And it's demonstrable nonsense because we now have several years of mass use of the Internet to point to. Far from disintermediating, the Internet has provided opportunities for many more intermediaries. There is greater choice, which will allow journalists and PRs to go their separate ways. But, there is nothing about XML or any other part of electronic social media that will engender a sudden move to honesty and truth.

1 Comment

Well said. More information means that we spend longer seeking trusted sources. These will often be journalists; occasionally but less frequently PR sources. Both activities thrive in a free market for information and the 'interweb' provides the freest information market we've yet seen.