Political churnalism

PR and spin have not undermined trust in politics – according to last night’s vote by a large audience at the end of a public debate at the University of Westminster. However, the victorious panellists, Lance Price, practitioner turned chronicler of spin, and Francis Ingham, chief executive of the Public Relations Consultants Association, conceded that PR bore part of the blame – it was just that politicians and the media were even more culpable.

Both sides acknowledged the hidden collusion between spin doctors and journalists which lies at the heart of our system of political communication. Price claimed that the “worst excesses of spin would not be possible if there weren’t journalists willing to play along”, illustrating the point with an anecdote showing how he and a journalist had conspired to deceive an unwitting public. For the other side Mirror associate editor (politics) Kevin Maguire made the point that “When I get a story it’s brilliant investigative journalism; when you get it it’s a handout from a spin doctor”.

So churnalism flourishes in the political world, although it may not be as obvious as transcribing press releases. As the fourth panellist, journalist turned spin doctor Sheila Gunn, testified, it’s incredibly difficult to operate as a journalist without the help of the spin machine to supply stories. The general sense in the debate was of a small group of traders operating in an information marketplace where the currency is as often as not highly personalised. It was rather a long way from how journalists often like to depict themselves – as the watchdogs of public life and fearless explorers seeking the truth.

Even recent media triumphs are not quite what they seem. The saga of MPs expenses, much cited in the debate, was scarcely the product of investigation. Instead the Daily Telegraph was the beneficiary of an enormous data dump, furnished – allegedly – by a PR man. The paper’s role was to make the raw material digestible: an important job, but essentially an editorial one. Something similar has happened with Wikileaks. Indeed – at the risk of blaspheming in the holy of holies of journalistic folk memory – there was more than a touch of this to the Watergate reports of all those years ago.

Much of the skulduggery that was under discussion may be – as everyone admitted – timeless, but is there not an increasing danger that the public is at best left out, or at worst treated with contempt? There was a note of sadness about the way people were ceasing to engage with the political process. While our students at Westminster were well represented, I know they were not present in the numbers that attended when we debated the need to tell the truth in PR, or celebrity culture. Listening to panellists one heard of tales about personalities who are peripheral to the world of many – particularly younger people. Newspaper readership among the young may be collapsing, but that doesn’t mean they follow political affairs online: they have better things to do with their time.

The debate was refreshingly non-partisan – all sides shared the guilt – but one had an impression of a tiny but vocal political world which has turned in on itself. It has become a world of young political advisors setting out on political careers without wider experience. A world of political journalists, spin doctors and politicians spending all their waking – and sometimes their sleeping – hours with each other. Too much focus on their own betterment – as the expenses scandals seemed to reveal – and not enough emphasis on bettering the lives of others. All sides in this debate – politicians, PR people, journalists – are failing to make their enthusiasm for politics infectious. In the end, the vote is hardly a triumph for PR.

Simon Goldsworthy teaches public relations at the University of Westminster and is the co-author of PR – A Persuasive Industry? Spin, Public Relations, and the Shaping of the Modern Media (Palgrave).