One of the oldest jokes about the media is ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’. Never has this been more true – and less of a joke – than over the past few days, as a relentlessly deceitful anti-EU media helped persuade Britons to shoot themselves in both feet.
It’s no coincidence that two of the masterminds behind this omni-shambles were two journalists-turned-politicians, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. They harnessed the power of the soundbite and the gutter press’ disdain for facts and truth to beat PR-turned-PM David Cameron in the Brexit battle.
“If you think rule by professional politicians is bad, wait until journalist politicians take over,” (journalist) Nick Cohen wrote last weekend. “Johnson and Gove are the worst journalist politicians you can imagine: pundits who have prospered by treating public life as a game.”
Or as Politico reporter Alex Spence put it:
To recap: in a huge backlash against unaccountable elites, Britain has handed control to a pair of journalists.
The strands to the Brexit fiasco are innumerable and inextricable. But there’s no doubt that journalists past and present played a significant role.
Boris Johnson may only have written for ‘quality’ broadsheets before entering politics, but we should have predicted that he would use tabloid tricks in his Brexit campaign.
He and Gove knew the most effective tactic would be to keep the messages simple and repeat them over and over. It doesn’t matter if it’s not true – if you repeat it enough, via the tabloids, it become true enough for most.
This is why, even after Michael Gove was caught out on TV with his now infamous ”people in this country have had enough of experts” comment, Johnson was able to regain the momentum by reverting to basics. Talking about Brussels forbidding sales of bananas in bunches of more than two was one favourite.
None of this should be a surprise. Journalist-become-politician Johnson has been cooking up anti-EU nonsense – Brussels wants to ban Britain’s favourite chips, standardise condom sizes and blow up its own asbestos-filled headquarters, for instance – since his early reporting days.
“For 25 years our press has fed the British public a diet of distorted, mendacious and relentlessly hostile stories about the EU – and the journalist who set the tone was Boris Johnson,” said former Times foreign editor Martin Fletcher.
Charles Grant, co-founder of EU think-tank the Centre for European Reform (CER), says most of the influential British newspapers – the Sun, Express, Daily Mail and Telegraph – did not just back Leave, but became propaganda sheets for that cause.
Indeed. Just look at this small sample of Daily Express front-page headlines: “Migrants must get benefits, say EU”, “Invasion of gay ethnic immigrant EU shirkers on benefits”, “2m EU migrants grab our jobs”, “Migrants milking Britain’s benefits”, “Proof we can’t stop migrants: five million new EU citizens have been given right to enter Britain”, “Soaring cost of teaching migrant children”, “12m Turks say they’ll come to UK”, “Migrants take all new jobs in Britain”.
Those repugnant slogans – which wouldn’t have looked out of place in 1930s Germany if you replaced the word ‘migrant’ with ‘Jew’ – hit their mark. “I hear that repeated back to me on the doorsteps – whatever was on the front page of the tabs that day,” pro-Remain British MP Jo Cox said just days before her murder on June 16. “It’s getting through.”
Fletcher says EU-bashing is a decades-old problem across the UK press. “Articles that did not bash Brussels, that acknowledged the EU’s achievements, that recognised Britain had many natural allies in Europe and often won important arguments, were almost invariably killed.”
The Brexit communication story is about far more than just the media, of course. It was also about the power of messaging, and storytelling. As my colleague Jim Curtis wrote in his brilliantly, sadly prescient blog in April, Leave had an unfair advantage on this front, with its flag-waving, tub-thumping mantra of national pride, self-belief and destiny. Remain’s fear-focused argument was weighed down in risk and caution; it stirred no passion for staying in Europe.
But why didn’t the media debunk Leave myths? Some say even leading outlets didn’t try hard enough. The CER’s Grant accuses the BBC of a “lamentable” failure to fulfil its legal obligation to inform and to educate. Senior BBC journalists possessed too little EU knowledge and – even more shockingly – feared Brexiter wrath so much that they left unchallenged untrue statements by Leave campaigners, he says. Grant quoted a top BBC journalist as saying: “If we give a Leaver a hard time, we know the Mail or the Sun may pick on us and that that is bad for our careers. But if we are tough on Remainers it might upset the Guardian and that doesn’t matter at all. This affects the way some colleagues handle interviews.”
Other observers say it is wrong to tar the whole BBC and quality print media with the same brush. Serious outlets such as the Financial Times, the Economist and many parts of the BBC did present reasoned facts, they say; the problem was that they were preaching to the converted, and did not reach the Brexit-minded beyond that bubble.
Off the ropes
You might choose to view how much of the UK press covered the referendum campaign as a symptom of journalism’s decline. Personality politics, entertainment and emotion-grabbing soundbites – “Take back control”, “The Turks are coming” – trumped reasoned arguments, journalistic enquiry and deep knowledge.
But just a few years after the phone-hacking scandal shuttered sensationalist Sunday paper the News of the World, and tabloids looked to be on the ropes, the Brexit outcome suggests they’re riding high again. (Though as the dire expert predictions they rubbished play out, let’s hope their readers become just a little less credulous.)
“For several years it has been fashionable to say that the print media have become irrelevant. Indeed, at the start of the campaign one eminent political columnist assured me that they would not make any difference to the referendum result. He was wrong,” noted Grant.
Yet it’s the Leave luminaries who have the most explaining to do. Their frantic backtracking since the referendum might be amusing if it wasn’t so appalling. Nonsense about the NHS, migration controls and more were exposed within mere hours. One prominent pro-Leave MP admitted there was no post-Brexit plan. The emperors-in-waiting have no clothes.
And truth, gingerly picking its way out of the rubble of lies, now risks being buried under countless layers of fresh spin as the journalist politicians set out on the propaganda campaign of their lives, struggling to convince Britons that the bomb they dropped on themselves and Europe was a force for good.
When big news breaks these days, it’s become standard for news outlets to launch live blogs – streams of short, frequent updates that capture the action and reaction minute-by-minute – on their websites. Het Financieele Dagblad’s deputy editor Roy op het Veld summed it up recently when he tweeted: “Is er nog een nieuwsmedium zonder liveblog?” (“Is there any news outlet left without a live blog?”)
It was a reminder of journalism’s transformation in recent years. Once, only newswires competed to deliver real-time updates – with news alerts (‘snaps’) timed against rivals to fractions of seconds, with careers made and broken by reporters’ speed. I remember hanging dry-mouthed on the end of a landline for Reuters in the 1990s, waiting side-by-side with Bloomberg and Dow Jones for a company spokeswoman to appear with the full-year results release so we could race to phone the snaps into our newsrooms. In the adjoining meeting room, newspaper journalists sat sipping coffee as they awaited the press conference, calm in the knowledge their once-a-day deadlines were many hours away.
Those days are over. Now, everyone’s deadline is now. All news outlets are news agencies these days – that’s why, as Op het Veld implied, it’s unthinkable for them notto start live blogs when big news breaks. But it goes even further: anyone with a social media account can be their own news agency now. Everyone vies with everyone to broadcast news to the world. On Twitter’s 10-year birthday this week, commentators noted how sharing news has largely replaced the soft personal updates that made up so many early Tweets.
The implications for corporate communicators are immense. Whether you have good news to share, or bad news you’d rather muffle, the world is a live blog that is racing to spread the word.
These are confusing times in the UK media industry. Today sees the launch of the New Day, the UK’s first new national daily paper since the Independent first published in 1986. Yet at the same time, the Independent itself is axing its print edition and going entirely online. Who’s right? Is it a new day for newspapers, or is the sun setting on print?
Back to print
The publishers of the New Day say it’s designed to lure digital readers back to print. Intended to be read in no more than 30 minutes, the New Day deliberately abandons all the norms associated with a daily paper. It has no leader column, or political point of view – and not even a website. It serves up bite-size magazine-style content, with big pictures, infographics and snappy news digests. This is a news and feature snack for the busy reader usually flicking through news on a smartphone.
It will be fascinating to see if it succeeds, but surely the industry’s momentum is heading in the opposite direction. The Guardian, the UK national paper that has made the most successful shift into digital – becoming one of the world’s leading digital news organisations – is now investing so much in online news that many think it will eventually go the way of the Independent. In fact, within 10 or 15 years, some predict that most national newspapers in the UK will be digital-only.
Same challenge for broadcasters
Digital isn’t only revolutionising the written media. TV broadcasters face the same challenge. In the same month that the Independent announced its intention to close its paper, the BBC took its youth-focused TV channel, BBC Three, off-air. The channel is now also digital only – available online and on-demand, but not on TV as we traditionally know it.
Other channels are expected to follow suit. The whole idea of TV programmes being packaged into schedules and broadcast into our homes is being fundamentally threatened by the rise of on-demand broadcasters like Netflix and Amazon. Ten years ago, I was commissioned to write a feature for Broadcast magazine called the ‘New Kings of Content’ – looking at how digital giants outside the traditional broadcast industry, such as Apple, Google and Amazon, were squaring up to television broadcasters with a new model of on-demand content.
As we now gorge on Netflix box-sets and see Top Gear re-launched on Amazon, how true that has turned out to be. Some observers say traditional broadcast channels, just like newspapers, are also in their final years and predict a few of the biggest names will be gone by 2026.
These are seismic shifts in media consumption. A world where old established rules are changing, with media consumed à la carte rather than served as a set menu, demands careful thinking – or rethinking – about the most appropriate manner to tell your story. Content is still king; but it’s being packaged, distributed and consumed in ever-changing ways.
Dutch daily De Volkskrant yesterday joined the illustrious ranks of the New York Times, Harvard Law School and the University of Amsterdam – not to mention its fellow national newspaper Trouw – with the revelation that one of its employees had committed serial plagiary.
As you might expect at a PR agency staffed largely by ex-journalists, a collective gasp went up in Stampa’s newsroom-style Amsterdam office when the story emerged, swiftly followed by a deluge of instant, multi-coloured comment.
The angles are indeed many and various. And the story will no doubt be fully dissected, disputed and debated by the Dutch press – not to mention the unforgiving tribunal of social media – in the hours, days and weeks to come.
What does it say about the newspaper’s controls and mean for its reputation? Didn’t alarm bells sound over a cub reporter who poured out reams of stories in such a short period? Isn’t this primarily a personal tragedy for the ambitious young man whose name, reputation and career could be tainted for life? Don’t the journalism schools teach ethics, let alone basic tenets?
Where do you draw the line?
But there are other questions too. Where does plagiarism start and finish? Where do or should you draw the line? Don’t we all plagiarise to some extent, almost every time we write something? Even at Reuters in the pre-internet, pre-control-C days, we sometimes used to joke about our “microwave journalism”. It’s especially easy in these days of cut and paste. And even harder to detect when you lift a passage in one language and translate it into another.
“What I found is that when you cross the line once it becomes easier and easier to cross it again,” Jayson Blair said in a 2014 interview, 11 years after he plagiarised and invented scores of stories for the New York Times.
‘Pressure to publish’
What seems to link the disgraced NYT and Volkskrant reporters, as well as academics such as the Amsterdam and Harvard professors also found to have plagiarised in recent years, is ‘pressure to publish’. Academia has its own dynamic, but as newsrooms shrink, the ‘space to fill’ balloons and reporters have to compete against every other news organisation in the world and even every person with a smartphone, how surprised should we be at excesses like this?
In its copious account of the deception in May 2003, the New York Times wrote of Jayson Blair (forgive the cut and paste, but at least the source is clearly stated):
“His tools of deceit were a cellphone and a laptop computer – which allowed him to blur his true whereabouts – as well as round-the-clock access to databases of news articles from which he stole.”
I’m not sure many journalists in 2015 would consider a phone, laptop or Google “tools of deceit”. In fact, they’re tools of the trade for almost anyone who uses social media. To paraphrase (or pilfer?) the famous expression: we are all plagiarists now.
An often-heard complaint from journalists nowadays is that they don’t have time to attend an event, meet in person, or ‘do lunch’. Quite simply, they can’t get away from their desks. With media outlets now serving more channels – print, online, broadcast, social – and content generated by fewer editorial staff, it’s not surprising. The deadlines just keep coming as writers feed their hungry online news machines 24/7.
It makes me laugh to think about how it used to be. Back in the early 1990s when I first started as a journalist on an international trade magazine, we ran regular country reports. To research our material – in those pre-internet and even email days – our small team took turns to travel to the countries we reported on and paid personal visits to the companies we had to talk to.
It was planes, trains, automobiles, appointment sheets, a lot of maps and much time getting lost. The Benelux special report meant a five-day trip to Rotterdam, Antwerp and Zeebrugge (often given to the most junior team member), while the Australia, US West Coast, South America or South East Asia reports involved a two-week jaunt to the likes of Rio, San Francisco, Manila and Sydney. Needless to say, the editor bagged these for himself.
In today’s online world, this simply wouldn’t happen. Information is gathered over the phone, Skype, email and Google. Forget sushi with a CEO in Tokyo – today’s young reporter travels no further than the coffee machine.
So, to connect with this less fortunate and more harried generation of reporters, we need to think of different solutions, that suit them and fit with the online demands of their day.
Stampa recently demonstrated one way of doing this with London client Sports Revolution, who had conducted insightful and entertaining research into the marketing social media successes and failures of the FIFA World Cup. We decided to engage journalists in the story in a way that would involve the least time and disruption, but with maximum relevance. A live web chat, involving the Sports Revolution social media team and four journalists, each logging in from their offices at lunchtime, was the perfect solution. We served them a host of visual examples, supported by expert comment, and encouraged a lively online debate. It was fun, got good results and no one travelled more than six feet.
It may be less glamorous and garner fewer air miles than the editorial ways of old, but that’s the price of progress.