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 Nick Leader


PR BOSS SAYS TIDE IS TURNING AGAINST

"MASSIVELY UNREGULATED" JOURNALISM.

Investigative journalism "a pipedream"

for 95 per cent of journalists today.

Professor Hobsbawm flays the "delusion" that

journalism is higher up food chain of truth than PR.

By Nick Leader

Professor Julia Hobsbawm has "a vision for the future" of the Communications industry, but for that vision to be realized, she says, "journalism needs to stop deluding itself."

Nobody likes being told they're deluding themselves - but the real rub for journalists is that Hobsbawm is a PR executive not a hack.

I'm meeting Professor Hobsbawm the day after the Hutton verdict, a verdict she calls both "shockingly one sided" and the clearest sign yet that "the tide is turning against journalism."

The interview is at Hobsbawm Media & Marketing Communications (HMC), the PR agency Professor Hobsbawm established with Sarah Macaulay, who has since left the firm, amicably, and is now married to Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Before the 1992 General Election, Hobsbawm ran 'High Value Donor' fundraising for the Labour Party. She also ran the 'Thousand Club' and Labour's Gala Dinners, which transformed party funding. It was Hobsbawm who introduced Macaulay to Brown.

HMC specialize in high-end clients, among them Reuters, Time & Fortune, the financier George Soros, and the World Health Organisation.

If the name Hobsbawm rings a bell, it should. Julia is not the first Professor in her family; her father, Eric Hobsbawm, is an eminent Marxist historian. These days, though, the daughter's name has been as much in the news as the father's, and almost as controversial.

After twenty years at work in PR, Hobsbawm has become not only an industry powerhouse but a media commentator for numerous newspapers and magazines. She wrote the first national newspaper column on PR for The Times in 1997. She's recently been appointed Professor of Public Relations at the London Institute, after devising their first MA course in PR.

She sits on numerous boards, including those of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Hay Literary Festival, and the charity Saving Faces, a foundation devoted to facial surgery research. She's co-authored the influential 'Cosmopolitan Guide to Working in PR & Advertising' (1996) and has a new book of her own, with the working title 'Integrity PR,' due out next year from Atlantic Books.

She even made it into Who's Who, a remarkable honour for a PR executive almost as remarkable as her age (she's not yet forty) and the fact that she's a married mother with two small children and two teenage stepchildren.

Inside the smart, compact offices of HMC, just off Grays Inn Road, I've come to discuss Hobsbawm's views of journalism and PR, and the controversy these views have generated. She greets me with a warm hello, smartly dressed in high-heeled suede boots and jazzy modern jewellery. She looks sharp in all senses.

Hobsbawm thinks that PR has had to reform itself, and can be proud of its new working practices, level of transparency and self-regulation. Public relations, she argues is now a cleaner business than journalism, for two reasons.

First, PR companies may regulate themselves poorly, like print and broadcast media, but unlike such media they are now governed by "corporate, government-style regulatory frameworks." Journalists, in contrast, remain 'massively unregulated.'

Second, 'PR has to be prepared to be tracked back more precisely than journalism when it comes to content.'

Hobsbawm would not deny that corporations lie, both to and through PR companies. She concedes that "ironically the regulation on corporates and PR companies is in large part brought about by acts of good journalism." She also thinks journalists are a "fantastically interesting breed of inquiring minds seeking laudably to extrapolate the truth," and applauds "frank, fearless investigative-style journalism.' But she insists that such journalism is exceedingly rare, 'a pipe-dream for probably 95% of journalists working today."

"In print journalism you write a story and then it's edited and sub-edited and given a heading and given a picture and the whole meaning can actually go through several resolutions before it reaches its final point."

"The notion that journalism is 'at the vanguard of truth seeking, truth telling', that it is 'further up the moral food chain than most other forms of communication,' that 'journalism is somehow seriously frank and free," is a delusion."

"I think that the tide has changed, people now perceive journalism to be just as flawed as any other profession. Just as vulnerable to self-importance, self-delusion, disregarding certain truths about itself. It's an interesting turning point."

Hobsbawm is on to something. The British media has long been derided for its scurrilous practices, in particular its emphasis on 'scoops' and 'breaking stories.' There has been genuine dismay at the increasing influence of the tabloid press on the broadsheets.

Hobsbawm distinguishes herself not so much by speaking out against such practices and trends, as by her suggestions about how to combat them.

Patrick Weever, of Anti-Spin.com, refers to these suggestions as "The Julia Project." This project has two main tenets or aims: what Hobsbawm calls 'content labeling' and the establishment of a 'truth institute.'

'Content labeling' is Hobsbawm's attempt to increase transparency and bring back the public's waning trust in journalism. Onora O'Neill, in her BBC Reith Lectures in 2002, argued that if the news media are to be part of the solution to restoring trust to public life, rather than part of the problem, they must "provide reporting we can access and check." PR companies are prepared to have their press releases 'tracked back'; journalists should be prepared to do so with their articles.

"When you get a piece that is published, why don't you get any sense of how many influencing factors were brought to bear on it? How many out of date cuttings were consulted, or perhaps cuttings that have a complaint on file about their content or validity?"

At the very least, as Patrick Weever points out, introducing such an idea would force the disclosure of junkets and gifts. It would also discourage simple laziness.

The practical implications of introducing 'content labelling' in journalism are daunting, but this is where Hobsbawm's "truth institute" comes in. "If I could wave a magic wand there would be a forum - part academic, part think tank. A place where moral philosophy is applied to the question of where information goes in the 21st century." This place would be the 'truth institute.'

Hobsbawm is a supporter of the Press Complaints Commission and the role she envisions for the truth institute would not be that of the regulator. Its concern would be more general, what political parties call 'policy.' She cites the late Bernard Williams, a philosopher who served on several high-profile public inquiries, as an ideal type for the institute.

The reaction of some journalists and academics to Hobsbawm's idea of a 'truth institute' has been both fearful and dismissive. "Sounds Orwellian. Whose truth are they going to get?" asks Brent Cunningham, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. Tom Rosenstiel, Vice-Chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, thinks "there are good reasons to beware of people outside journalism trying to fix journalism, for these people have their own agendas."

But Hobsbawm is adamant. "What I am seeking is not just an end to the cold war between Journalism and PR but a warm rapprochement. As long as journalism tries to hide its head in the sand, unlike those in PR and public life who have examined their navel extensively, then journalism is going to come a cropper."

Hobsbawm thinks there's no such thing as a free press, or a press independent of PR. That actually "you can't now have a successful media coverage of the travel industry, the sports industry, the entertainment industry, without PR". Journalists like to argue that "the fact that we now require PR is some new defect in our moral structure. But actually I just think that's kind of bullshit. I think the reality is that since time immemorial a free press has actually been synonymous with a subsidized press"

In a cheery, almost breezy, PR sort of way, Hobsbawn wants journalists and PR people to be reading from the same page. She thinks both parties should spend more time together, not less. The idea that publicists alone serve clients seems to her naive.

"Journalists are representing the agenda of the proprietor, the agenda of their individual editor, the agenda of the section or the segment that they are presenting," says Hobsbawm. "Everybody is telling the story on behalf of somebody else. The idea that journalism isn't doing that is really fundamentally wrong - with exceptions"

These exceptions - the practitioners of "frank fearless investigative journalism" - occur routinely in Hobsbawm's articles and interviews, prompting the suspicion that her complaints are not so much against journalism per se as against poor journalism, though as the Hutton report reminds us, poor journalism has infested even our most respected news organizations.

It could also be objected that Hobsbawm pays too little attention to a key difference in the conditions under which journalists and PR people work.

As Max Hastings put it in the Guardian the other week: "all journalism is conducted against a background of official obfuscation and deceit, which does much to explain our blunders and omissions." Is this how Hobsbawm would characterize her relations with her clients?

There's also the question of the journalistic mentality, as much of a cliché as the PR mentality. Is this character really redeemable, or a redemption we'd seek? In an article published in the British Journalism Review, the American academic Michael Kirkhorn wrote: "virtuous journalism is a weedy growth. It tends to be weedily unsystematic.... Journalism is not art, it is not science; neither is journalism scholarship, although accomplishments of journalists, purposeful and accessible, often outdo the investigations of scholars.... Journalists are free to be amateurs, to be interested, to practice... the art of the scavenger."

Perhaps with the publication of 'Integrity PR' in 2005, Julia Hobsbawm will provide more answers to the question of how journalism and PR should interact. Until then, she remains her own best example.



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