The perils of media partnership

The furore over the decision of Glasgow Rangers Football Club to ban the BBC reporter Chris McLaughlin and Times columnist Graham Spiers from reporting their matches seems to me to miss the point.

Politicians, foreign governments, commercial organisations, lawyers and PR executives have been trying to bully, intimidate and take sanctions against reporters as long as the media has existed.

The greater concern though is surely when media organisations become too close to those with whom they should have an arms-distance relationship.

My alarm bells ring when a media outlet is offered something on a variation of “unprecedented and exclusive access” by some company, organisation or government departmen. The price paid is invariably soft treatment.

Even more disturbing are the occasions when a media organisation refers to its “commercial partners” when they are talking about their advertisers. Even calling it a partnership is deeply unhealthy and can raise dangerous questions about the way stories are covered.

In fairness, neither Spears nor Professor Tim Luckhurst of Kent University seemed terribly worried about the impact of Rangers’s ban on journalists when they appeared on Radio 4’s Media Show last week.

In a modest way, Spears seemed to wear it as a badge of honour, in the way that most journalists frame legal letters and hang them in their toilets.

Indeed there can be few reporters – including the distinguished presenter of the Media Show Andrea Catherwood – who have not from time been charmed or bullied over lunch; accused of writing the “worst piece of journalism I have ever read” by the Prime Minister’s or party leader’s spokesperson; banned from a country; thrown out of a country; written a story that turns out to be true, but which is vehemently denied at the time: and threatened by lawyers and PR departments.

It is part of the web and waft of our lives – and it is always worth remembering that organisations only really turn their guns on you when something critical and accurate is written.

My concern is not when Glasgow Rangers tries to ban reporters, but when football clubs decide to establish exclusive relationships with a television channel or newspaper.

In June for example, when Newcastle announced Steve McClaren as their new manager, he was only allowed to speak to what the club called “preferred media partners” – a newspaper and a television channel. I commented on this in an earlier blog and went to examine they way in which the Telegraph Group refers to its “advertising partners.”

Royal Ascot is interesting too. The course boasts that its races are not sponsored. Yet there is plenty of promotion of what it describes as its commercial partners – clearly not a journalistic issue but it helps illustrate how fast and loose corporations can be with the language when it suits them.

This is all part of a strategy by those in power to blur the once clear divide between the media on one side and, on the other, those they report on.

Indeed the most interesting moment in last week’s Media Show was when Professor Luckhurst identified the way in which organisations use their own television channels. It is PR masquerading as reporting and it blurs the distinction between public relations and journalism.

The other concern is about “unprecedented access.” Radio Five Live has been a particular culprit here – even boasting about the unique access it has been given and I think this included visiting GCHQ. This is not a new phenomenon but instinctively I feel it is getting more pronounced.

I don’t want to claim too much of a moral high ground here. I have taken my share of scoops from friendly politicians, bankers and business leaders. It is also true too that every journalist gets too close to some of their sources and that contributing to sponsored sections in newspapers can give an overly flattering impression of a country.

But it is also true that for friend a public figure has in the media, there are plenty more hostile commentators. And that the coverage in sponsored sections is clearly defined. However even I am becoming concerned, as identified by my friend Mihir Bose, about the Telegraph’s regular Russian and Chinese sections.

When there are regular Chinese and Russian sponsored propaganda sections –as is the case in The Telegraph – there is a real danger that it will affect editorial coverage in the main newspaper.

So there are very clear warning signals. In the drive for survival, the commercial departments of our newspapers and television channels will become ever more powerful.

But we can keep our eyes and we can see the warning signs. And that means that we can at least, as readers and viewers, operate our own checks and balances.


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