Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

In the dark corridors of power

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on November 3, 2006

This week I learned how in the dark corridors of power, politicians contrive to screw over journalists. And then I learned how to do it myself…

It seems that politicians have been trying to hoodwink journalists since year zero. What really amazes me is the outrageous lengths they go to manipulate the press and deceive the public. And what amazes me even more how many journalists willingly tag along.

It happened in 1938, when the government did a deal with the BBC to support appeasement and keep Chamberlin afloat. And in 1956, the government tried flat out denying their involvement in Israel’s invasion of Egypt. And in 1974 the US government tried flat out lying to the press over Watergate…except they weren’t lying – in the words of the White House Spokesperson, their previous statements had become “obsolete”.

WestminsterThese days, screwing over journalists is known as “media management.” In Britain, the goverment has all sorts of systems in place to exploit the media: complex timetables, called the GRID, which co-ordinate ministerial statements and bury bad news as effectively as possible. Ministers in the lobby “leak” stories to undermine opponents or boost their careers. Each government department has a press office which produces long ‘media handling strategies’ and every utterance on radio and TV closely monitored and recorded.

As part of an intensive week learning about how government works, we had to swap sides and play the government press officer. Our task was to produce a media handling strategy and a press release for a controversial (and fictional)  government announcement about pesticides.
It was basically an exercise in learning how we will be continually deceived, misdirected, diverted and controlled by the political machine throughout our careers.
After outlining to the fictional minister (imaginatively named John Smith) the announcement he must make and the controversy surrounding it, I then gave a list of the possible responses (farmers would like the announcement, and campaign groups wouldn’t). Then I had to come up with a strategy for handling the media and it went like this:

  1. Completely undermine a serious scientific report, saying it wasn’t scientific enough.
  2. Hype up  the government’s own study, which supports the minister’s decision.
  3. Go overboard expressing the minister’s sympathies with the other side.
  4. Take any journalists  who might support the decision out for lunch to get them to really support the decision.

Finally, I wrote a press release so convoluted that not even an academic could understand it. The controversial announcement was buried right down in the middle of the release and was packed full of made up quotes.

And at the end, I was almost quite proud of myself. But I am never, ever, taking a press release seriously again. They are evil, pure evil! 

2 Responses

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  1. Chris Doidge said, on November 4, 2006 at 12:14 am

    PRs and journalists seem to have an interesting relationship, don’t they?!

    What amazes me (as a journalist, I should add) is that PRs think they have a leg to stand on!!! Journalists might be characterised as unscrupulous, but at least it’s not written in our job descriptions!

  2. Ru Owen said, on November 6, 2006 at 3:55 pm

    It’s at this point that words like ‘sexy’ creep into common parlance. Time after time in lectures the Hutton report comes up and shocks me how the government played fast and loose with what David Kelly actually said. Alistair Campbell intentionally misunderstood Dr. Kelly in order to make what was essentially a war press release more sexy and, of course, it’s us journos that get the blame.

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