How the word ‘partner’ is used to deceive (part one)

Have you noticed how the corporate world is increasingly distorting and corrupting the word ‘partner’ to create a deliberately misleading impression.

Yesterday, when Newcastle announced Steve McClaren as their new manager, he was only allowed to speak to “preferred media partners” – a newspaper and a television channel. He later told the Daily Mail that he was not allowed to speak to the independent press.

Let’s look at what exactly a partner is. A partner is someone who plays on the same side as another; a person engaged with another in business; or a couple living together. It embodies a close relationship and shared concerns.It is, if you like, the commercial wing of that dread political phrase: “We are all in it together.” And it seeks to imply exactly the same thing.

Whatever the partnership between Newcastle and its preferred media partners, there has to be something in it for both of them. Only the coverage next season will tell how each is scratching each other’s back.

This is not the first time that the commercial side of organisations have given an unintentional insight into how they are subverting the media.

Earlier this year, the journalist Peter Oborne resigned from the Telegraph, arguing that the “coverage of HSBC in Britain’s Telegraph is a fraud on its readers. If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril.”

The Telegraph’s response included a very interesting paragraph. “We aim to provide all our commercial partners with a range of advertising solutions, but the distinction between advertising and our award-winning editorial operation has always been fundamental to our business. We utterly refute any allegation to the contrary.”

It is impossible to reconcile the first half of this paragraph with the second. By referring to those they have a commercial relationship with as “partners”, they are saying they are on the same side as them. To preserve the integrity of a media organisation from allegations of favouritism, every part of it should be firmly on the opposite of the table to those it deals with.

How indicative of the modern Telegraph it is that the words they use to defend their independence actually have the effect of reinforcing Oborne’s argument.

And anyone who is blase about the dangers of too close a link between commercial and journalistic coverage should look at the Telegraph’s regular Russian and Chinese sections. Mihir Bose noted in a tweet in April that “The Daily Telegraph’s Russian pull out has articles praising Stalin, including his pact with Hitler and press freedom under the Soviets.” He warns that “The Telegraph may say thè views are those of the supplements but would most readers understand that?”

Of course, all papers, including respected ones like the Financial Times, have commercial sections, but these are always one-offs and don’t affect long-term coverage in the main editorial pages. Can one be so confident that, when there is a deal to publish sections on a country or company on a regular basis, there will be no insidious pressure on the news and feature coverage in the main paper.

If you are still unconvinced, all you have to do is google “media partners” and see how many companies come up with the words. All of them are looking for ways of crossing the bridge between commerical interest and editorial independence.

I don’t blame them for doing this – if the leaders of our media outlets are too feeble to resist, you can’t criticise those who exploit this weakness.

And I dont want to be naive about this – there is always going to be a tension between commercial and editorial interests. Sometimes one side wins out, sometimes another.

But it becomes immoral and professionally corrupt – and potentially damaging to editorial independence – when any media organisation refers to a commercial or political organisation as its partner.

So whenever you hear a reference to the word “partner” in a media relationship, be deeply suspicious.


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