Earlier today I responded to a blog that asked the question, “How influential are newspapers these days?” (The blog is from the Public Relations Institute of Australia Group on LinkedIn.)
I responded by suggesting that newspapers and the media more generally will always have their part, but that they all need to work out what those new parts are to be. I said that I thought that people will pay for value, and that the advertising-driven model (create a section and fill it with ads and a few words) will disappear to be replaced by a value-based approach.
But then I turned my gaze to the media coverage about the investigations in Britain about the allegations against the News of the World. And I realized that this might be a watershed for the entire future of the media as we know it.
This sounds overstated.
But this is more than a rogue action by a rogue editor of a rogue newspaper.
Nor is it a one-off. It demonstrates a cultural approach to dominating a market, seemingly to the exclusion of most decent human traits.
And it seems to be another example of individuals believing they breathe a different kind of air, perhaps with ozone rather than oxygen, from the rest of us.
It’s happened in recent years, in another sector – the financial sector. Then, the actions essentially of a group of individuals who, over a period of years, had lobbied for the relaxation of regulations, checks and balances, and had then created businesses designed to make vast sums of money for them and their shareholders using business techniques that were in many cases doubtful at best, resulted in the intervention of governments to stave off a worldwide economic collapse.
The re-regulation of the finance sector and of the banking sector in particular remains a work in progress. But it might be that regulation is needed to provide the framework to give populations an ultimate source-of-last resort in more sectors than we had expected. It’s no surprise that this is anathema to those in business who benefit most from those regulations not being in place.
Astonishing as it may sound, it might be more beneficial for countries to have at least one “nationalized newspaper” in the same way that many have a national broadcaster such as the ABC in Australia and the BBC in the UK. To the accusation that these national newspapers might eventually become the propaganda outlets of the government of the day (if we’re being apocalyptic about things), the response might at least we can always vote out the government of the day tomorrow.
(Let’s also not forget that the government of the day always believes that the national broadcaster is against them.)
If governments believe banks are too important to society to let them collapse, and too prone to the greed and hubris of individuals if owned by shareholders as public or private companies, maybe governments will also come to believe that media organizations should not be owned by shareholders and tycoons, whose motives ultimately inevitably focus on profit, and influence and advantage to the furtherance of profit.
Earlier today, in my comments to the blog, I also presented a thought experiment in which no-one turned to newspapers any more because they felt they could get what they needed from the Web, from a whole range of sources. And I mooted that there was a risk in this, because none of us would know what the sources were, what the biases were, or even whether the facts were correct.
Now we’re faced with a news organization allegedly breaking the law to do something much more than get the scoop on its rivals. If we had any sense, we’d be asking the question, who do we trust? And although it’s unfair for all media outlets to be tainted by the alleged actions of one, that’s not our fault.
Finally, where does public relations fit into all this? I’ve always had the rosy notion that the relationship between PR practitioners and the media has been somehow symbiotic, taking solace in the notion that the journalist will always make the right editorial decision and carry news, not hype or plugs. I was never one of those PR people who paid for coverage, I always hoped I provided real news, and took notice when journalists said, “no it’s not news, go away”.
But of course I’m acting on behalf of an organization, either a client or an employer, so I have a bias. And if the media outlet is now much more than merely compliant, but complicit, then the whole edifice built on the joust between the PR man and woman, and the journalist, cracks.
It would be astonishing and exciting if the News of the World’s actions became a catalyst for something not yet seen in the way we consume news, for the creation of some new way of getting news that describes events that have happened, rather than creating (or controlling) events for the benefit of shareholders.
And in the world of PR, more than ever we need to be seen to be adding value with probity, in ways that transcend any particular distribution channel.