Avoiding the dark side or why I hate churnalism

Jonathan Miller: Photograph by Hattie Miles
Jonathan Miller: Photograph by Hattie Miles

As yet another ludicrous press release – a gushing piece of mindless spin – drops into my in-box I find myself yet again lamenting the way in which journalists are routinely taken for fools who can be manipulated for political or commercial ends. Of course as the media in general and the regional print press in particular is gradually reduced to a shadow of its former self by cost-cutting proprietors more interested in driving up profits than championing fair and balanced reporting, it is increasingly open-season for public relations departments. Lob a press release at an overworked, underpaid, inexperienced hack and the chances are that it will appear in print (and on-line) almost verbatim. With increasing cut-backs and geographically remote sub-editing hubs, hard-pushed editorial managers simply don’t have the time to make the necessary checks anymore nor the one to one communication that used to exist with their production colleagues.  PR people and their handlers know this and exploit the situation accordingly. The end result is known as churnalism. There’s a brilliant no punches pulled piece by Nick Cohen in the current addition of Standpoint  in which he unequivocally states his agreement with BBC economics editor Robert Peston’s recent assertion that PR’s are the enemy. Read it here: Nick Cohen – Standpoint

Well, while I agree in general with Cohen’s sentiments, I have to say that I actually know some lovely, decent and, dare I say it, honest people who work in the public relations industry. However even they sometimes appear to lose all sense of reason when doing the bidding of their paymasters. It therefore remains a world of which I am deeply suspicious.

It’s getting on for three years now since I was asked by theatrical producer and entrepreneur Clive Conway to join his team and help publicise his nationwide An Audience with tours featuring sundry actors, writers, broadcasters and politicians. I was invited to his home in Oxford, given a splendid lunch and asked if I would be his PR manager. Realising that I might well be committing professional suicide I said that I couldn’t possibly do a job like that. I explained “I don’t do PR. What’s more I’m a writer and like many writers I find it tough enough managing myself let alone anyone or anything else.”

Happily Clive saw the point and we agreed that I’d become head of media and publicity – a grand title considering it was only me. That of course was another plus, having no staff. I’m not a natural boss. I don’t think I’ve ever instructed anyone to do anything in my life. Asking politely is about the best I can do. The bottom line about publicity v PR is that while I have no problem emphasising the positive I will not tell lies or cover-up bad press. Not only does it go against every fibre of my being but such practices invariably catch up with you. Anyway the simple fact is that there’s nothing like an embarrassing story to get the audiences in.

It is surprisingly difficult to get anything remotely controversial printed. Even when there are no skeletons waiting to clatter out of people’s proverbial cupboards, creeping and crawling seems to be the default mode for far too many looking to sell, or even write about, a show.  I remember quite early on in my Clive Conway days being contacted by a breathlessly enthusiastic but utterly deluded marketing man from an arts centre somewhere in the home counties.

He asked if I could set up some press interviews in advance of an appearance at his venue by satirist, director, writer and doctor Sir Jonathan Miller. He said he had two or three journalists interested and would make sure that only those willing to agree to ask ‘respectful questions’ would be invited. What unbelievable bollocks! Having had some dealings with the good Dr Miller I knew he would be appalled by this suggestion.  I told the fawning marketing man in no uncertain terms that he was being ridiculous. That if the interviews went ahead I wanted them to be with journalists who asked absolutely any question they wanted and that Jonathan was more than capable of handling whatever they liked to throw at him.

There have been one or two similar cases since but generally the message has got out. I want stories in newspapers and online with a bit of grit in them and not spineless, namby-pamby rubbish. As for me? I am well  aware that my ‘ethical’ stance is seen by some as hopelessly old-fashioned and severely limits my employment potential in the publicity/PR sector but I’m afraid that is the way it has to be. If I abandoned my principles and followed the money I would undoubtedly be considerably wealthier than I am today but it would mean losing my most valued possession – a clear conscience.

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre publicist and occasional art historian.

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