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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Trust me, I'm a spin doctor 

Due to running round meeting ridiculous deadlines last week I missed what could have been an interesting TV programme. Entitled "The Dirty Tricks Election" it followed an undercover reporter who worked as part of Labour's campain team during the recent general election and 'exposed' what I believe is known in the US as 'astroturfing', ie faking grassroots support. I did manage to read an article about the programme the day after though, which expressed the writer's shocked reaction to learning that the people pictured at poster unveilings were in, fact, party workers and that letters written to newspapers came from political activists etc, etc.

My reaction to this was "well, duh". It is, after all, pretty standard behaviour for any campaigning organisation, although I realise that everyone might not know this. Those news stories you see of Greenpeace protesters 'invading' oil rigs or chaining themselves to Range Rovers, well the people in orange are members of staff I'm reliably informed by an ex-employee (of Greenpeace, not me). I've been involved in campaigning in previous jobs, and yes I've encouraged supporters (or 'activists' if you prefer) to write to newspapers and provided them with materials to help. I've written to newspapers myself. I don't think it's that suprising that people who are motivated enough and interested enough in an issue to put pen to paper are also motivated and interested enough to get involved with an organisation that campaigns on that issue. And if you're motivated and interested enough to work for such an organisation, does that mean you have to be condemned to silence? If the people at the poster unveilings were rent-a-crowd actors or the letters came from professional writers and non of them cared tuppence for the issues, just for the fee they were paid, then I think everyone would have a right to be outraged. But as far as I'm concerned support from someone who genuinely holds an opinion about an issue remains valid support even if they are part of an 'activist network' or an employee.

What angered me about the whole thing was the horror from journalists. Are you really teling me they weren't aware of this? Of course they were! And if they weren't thenI'd seriously question their professional competnecy. News-generators and news-reporters are very much two sides of the same coin - one wants coverage, the other wants something worth covering. A poster unveiled with a crowd of cheering supporters makes for much better pictures than a poster with just couple of rather dull politicians there. A letters page with letters is a heck of lot more desirable than one without. The media is perfectly aware that politicians, and others, attempt to manipulate it, and will let that manipulation happen if it suits.

And it's not as if the news media has much right to the moral high ground either. Another thing that too many people aren't aware of, or just don't think about, is that the majority of news-outlets are commercial concerns. They exist to make money just as much as a car manufacturer, or a bank, or a retailer. They have outright owners or shareholders who want profits. To get profits they need advertisers and/or sales. They need readers/viewers/listeners to generate the sales and advertising reveues, and they need 'attractive' stories to get those people. So, given the choice between something that reinforces their audience's world view or one which suggests it's wrong, which are they going to opt for? A fair and balanced but maybe slightly bland story, or one that takes a narrow perspective and produces a 'newsworthy', if skewed picture? Hmmm, tough choice. I'm not saying that there aren't journalists and editors and news-outlets with high principles and motivations much more noble than making a name for themselves/keeping there job/making sure the chairman's happy. I know that there are and good journalism has done a lot of good. But there's too much bad, or just lazy, journalism around too, and too many people who sit on their high horse while seemingly ignoring the stink coming from the stables.

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