This blog is a personal opinion from Paul Noonan
Ever since Edward Bernays classified PR as “propaganda”, we in the industry have been portrayed as the enemy of a trustworthy, free press. There is no doubt that many in the profession have behaved in a less than respectful manner towards the press, as epitomised by Alastair Campbell’s behaviour in the Blair era. But people forget that there is another side to our profession.
PR can be a great friend of a free press, contributing to a pluralistic democracy and civil society by giving voice to the voiceless, raising awareness of causes and ideas that would otherwise sink without trace. It can break established monopolies, amplifying tiny voices and shedding light on vital new innovations and initiatives.
To perform that vital function, PR needs a press that will take stories from a wide array of sources because it is free to publish unpopular views or ideas and challenge powerful interests. It also depends on the continued existence of profitable newspapers capable of employing professional journalists trained to scrutinise stories and free to accept or reject them on merit alone.
While working with the Trustworthy Software Initiative, a not for profit organisation that aims to make society safer by encouraging companies to make the software underpinning the economy more secure and reliable, we had to raise awareness of poor corporate practices and sometimes criticise powerful companies. Ethical PR of this kind relies on having a press that is fearless and free to publish things that may be unwelcome to powerful people. And all good PR ultimately relies on audiences being able to trust the news they read, which means it must be news that is free from state control and comes from trained, professional journalists.
Yet all of that is under now under grave threat in Britain.
‘Section 40’ of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, condemned by the Index on Censorship, would force newspapers to submit to a state-approved press regulator called IMPRESS which is funded by a billionaire with a personal vendetta against the press and filled with people who have expressed contempt for popular newspapers.
Those newspapers that refuse would be forced to pay all legal costs even if a complaint against them is false and is thrown out in court. That would be an unprecedented assault on free speech and a tax on truth, the equivalent of forcing a libel victim to pay the court costs of the libeller. If newspapers are compelled to pay all the costs of a case even if they win, it will provide a feeding frenzy for every unscrupulous lawyer and everyone with a vendetta. The resulting legal cases would bankrupt many regional and national newspapers, and turn the rest into timid, toothless puppets, shying away from any controversial stories for fear of ‘no win, no fee’ lawsuits. Newspapers will be reduced to mere bulletin boards, containing little but government and corporate announcements, TV listings and sports results. And that is bad news for PR, too.
If the newspapers go bankrupt or lose the trust of the public, their audiences will migrate to the twilight world of online ‘fake news’, the last refuge of freedom. Here, in the world of untrained internet journalists, PR will no longer be subjected to the scrutiny of proper reporters and editors and audiences will have no way to sift real news from ‘fake news’. Propaganda PR will prosper and diligent, ethical PR will suffer just as bad money drives out good money when we can no longer distinguish between the two.
Far from raising the standards of the press, state regulation will represent the final triumph of fake news over real news and of unscrupulous propaganda over ethical PR.
You can join me in responding to the Government’s public consultation here, and saying “No” to the implementation of Section 40. This is your last chance – it closes on January 10th.
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