Shooting the Messenger

These are challenging times for media channels. Politics has become increasingly divisive in many countries, leading to accusations of bias from both sides of the divide in how the media reports.

‘Truth’ is an increasingly elastic concept, with anyone putting the counter argument being seen as straight wrong. Discourse, exchanges of views, civilised argument and debate are all in short supply.

In the UK we are currently witnessing the spectacle of the governing party, the Conservatives choosing a new leader to replace Boris Johnson. The person selected by around 160,000 Conservative Party members will become the next Prime Minister.

This process involves what seem like endless hustings hosted by this or that broadcaster and featuring the two candidates performing in front of those with a vote (remember the voters in this case are a slither of the population and are by no means representative).

The candidates play to the gallery, going for instant applause over any discussion around detailed policy intentions.

One guaranteed crowd pleaser is to blame the media – for pretty well anything, and certainly for the downfall of the current PM.

The same ‘blame the media’ phenomenon was seen in the US during the last election cycle at Trump rallies.

Never mind that much of the time the media were reporting on certain behaviours.

This is not a political blog but this ‘shoot the messenger’ thinking is dangerous. Omar Oakes summed it up well in his Mediatel Media Leaders column this week.

The question is what can, or indeed should the commercial side of the media industry do about it, if indeed anything?

I commented on Oakes’ piece at the time and make no apology for making the same points again here.

I see two courses of action, one regulatory, one commercial.

On the regulatory front letting the Conservative Governments of Cameron and May get away with cancelling Leveson 2 without so much as even a minor fuss was a mistake.

Leveson 2 was the recommended follow-up to Lord Leveson’s enquiry into phone hacking to fuel stories in our newspapers.

Part Two was planned to address the oh-so-cosy relationship between newspapers, politicians, and the police. It was quietly dropped following pressure from key newspaper proprietors.

Advertising trade bodies and lobby groups should call for it to be resurrected as a way of rebuilding confidence in an independent, free press.

Commercially, today’s sales directors really have zero influence over their papers’ editorial policy.

It was not always so. Harold Evans, the legendary Editor of ‘The Sunday Times’ (pre-Murdoch) famously consulted his Sales Director before embarking on his landmark thalidomide campaign.

He (Evans) would no doubt have done what he did anyway (and his Sales Director encouraged him to do what he saw as the ‘right thing’ in any case), but the point is he did think it important to consult.

What about the influence today of advertisers, and pressure groups like Stop Funding Hate?

Advertisers buy audiences. They are or should be agnostic editorially. Would you prefer a newspaper edited by Paul Dacre or Procter and Gamble? The very fact that I am asking that question should make the point.

Advertisers define the audiences they want to reach in a number of ways as we all know.

What if certain beliefs, even political beliefs were an audience determinator?

What if political persuasion was a demographic? What if TGI’s lifestyle questions included statements on topics like immigration, or even Brexit? What if you could buy campaigns against a target of committed remainers, or leavers?

It is not correct to say these views have no impact on purchasing. It would be interesting to ask James Dyson (a famously committed Brexiter) whether his views impacted sales.

Why would the Dyson people want to target committed remainers with their ads?

What if a newspaper’s more extreme editorial views had commercial consequences?

It’s an interesting question that I have posed before here in 2017.

But here’s the thing. The Cog Blog is non-commercial, I don’t charge anything for it as it gives me the freedom to be, to paraphrase Bob Hoffman ‘an indiscriminate insulter’.

But I do look at the number of people accessing the posts – this varies by a factor of 10, even 20.

And this one, on advertisers and editorial was way down the league table. For such an important topic, this surprised me.

In the last five years the issue has become more extreme.

We should not ignore this matter. We are due a debate.

  1. Good post Brian

  2. Thanks – I think it’s time to have this debate!

  3. Thanks Brian,
    I recently had a dinner with a reputable NYT political journalist currently writing a book about TRUTH. His argument being that our definition of truth is morphing from information grounded in factually correct information, to what we as communities choose to believe. In other words, as significant swarms of humans choose to believe the US election was stolen, in their world this become a truth. Politicians are looking closely at behavioral science to understand that a continually determined narrative becomes a truth in the minds of a growing audience. Thoroughly depressing but thoroughly real as we witness the redefinition of truth across the world.

    On the point about commercial influence, it’s a factual truth that the overwhelming majority of the media is in the hands of a handful extreme white wealth. Media changes governments, not policy. It’s what protects special interests and guards institutional racism in America.

    There is no band aid to fix this problem in America. Whoever is in government is so indebted to media and specialist interests that the system is utterly broken.

    The only fix i see is bottom-up reset of civic understanding and duty in kids from all demographics from an early teen-age. have been doing this for 3 years and the early signs are very strong. The goals is realistically 3-4 presidential cycles to have these kids in influential roles. Early cohorts are already highly active.

    In relation to the “free press” my time as CEO of the Guardian for North America, early in my tenure we clashed with editorial take downs of commercial advertising (Courted HSBC for 6 months and lost it a week after signature for a justifiable editorial destruction of their banking practice). I sat with the editorial team and agreed swim lanes for our commercial team to exercise. So if all cars as are polluting, can we work with the least polluting- electric cars? If Nestle are the devil incarnate, let’s agree Unilever as the best of a bad bunch. Over the course, we built a better level of respect between commercial and Editorial and commercially thrived commercially while the company migrated gently across to voluntary membership as the core revenue model. And for what it’s worth There was not a single news proprietor or commentator who supported Alan Rusbridger’s determined belief that quality news must be free for all and that people would voluntarily financially support quality journalism without a paywall. So far at least, he’s been proven correct.

    Sent with love and clumsy thumbs.

  4. Thanks Eamonn – and great to hear from you!
    I’m not sure about your point on truth. Surely before the mass media era ‘truth’ was largely defined as what communities chose to believe? In a sense we’ve gone backwards from the fact-driven era driven by those with the facts and the means to interpret and distribute them. Now, as we are all ‘experts’ and we all have the means to distribute anything we like anywhere. Our ‘communities’ are no longer geographically defined but interest group defined – even if some of the interest groups are bat-shit crazy!
    On The Guardian (as a loyal supporter / reader / member) I well remember the HSBC episode. In fact I even posted about it as Peter Oborne resigned from The Telegraph as that paper took a far less principled view than the Guardian. Here’s the link:
    I’ve also supported Byline Times from the start (well, nearly!) as it seems to me we need independent journalism more than ever. Oborne now writes for them.
    Anyway – keep fighting the good fight!

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