Category Archives: newspapers

An open letter to George Osborne of the Evening Standard

Dear Mr. George Osborne,

Many congratulations on your new position editing the Evening Standard, one of the free newspapers in London. It’s going to be an exciting ride for you – if you’re allowed to do it properly.

There are a few issues you’ll need to look out for. First, let’s clear one thing up; you once wrote a piece for me for a supplement I was editing at the New Statesman and frankly it was excellent – independent, no puff, on time and to length. This bodes well.

However, that’s not the same as editing someone else’s piece. And editing a single piece is not the same as envisioning and putting together an entire publication.

Newspaper process

I’m not normally a fan but Guido Fawkes has published a set of potential conflicts of interests that are going to face you from day one.

The one that leaps out at me is the fact that you’re due either in your constituency or at the House of Commons during the time that the main news meetings will be taking place for the day.

News meetings are important, they decide what’s actually going into the paper. This isn’t a simple paper exercise; juggling exactly what’s going on the news pages and how to prioritise them is how you sell the paper.

It’s a process that can be learned, by all means, but do you really have the time and inclination? There are some who think it’s time you got a proper job, but you may not be one of them.

Conflicts of interests

The Fawkes piece highlights a good few conflicts of interests, but here’s another. According to the papers, you’re pulling in £650K per year from BlackRock and a shedload more from speeches.

I don’t resent that like some people do. As ex-chancellor your appeal probably has a limited shelf life, I don’t blame you for making the most of it while it lasts. But do you really believe it’s my business to know the amount? If not, you’re in trouble, because it’s in your paper’s interests to report it. And what if it’s one of your friends? It’s no secret that you got on fine with David Cameron as prime minister. What happens when someone feeds you the fees he’s earning?

Are you prepared to end your friendship for your readers’ sake? Editing and writing about your friends can be dangerous, and many of your friends and ex colleagues are public figures.

Should you stand down?

Guido Fawkes is calling for your appointment to be blocked. I’m not so sure. Your old friend the former prime minister has gone. You’re no great pal of his replacement and you’re still opposed to Brexit. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that view, I wonder whether you’d be in a better position to express it as the head of London’s free paper than as an MP?

Dig a little further and you realise that your constituency is among those under threat from the redrawing of the boundaries before the next general election. Unless there’s a sharp realignment from Theresa May between now and then, or unless she falls (and given the political events of the last couple of years I rule nothing out), I don’t see a way back for you. The publicity says you’ll stay MP for Tatton whilst being editor. Never mind waiting to see whether your appointment is blocked, I wonder whether pulling out early and provoking another byelection might be a better option, giving you a cleaner entry and kicking a political opponent in the teeth at the same time?

In fact I’m beginning to wonder whether you hadn’t already thought of all of that before any of this became public.

Oh, and if you need a media commentator I’m reassuringly expensive.

Yours

Guy Clapperton

Marketing and journalism are different – tell your clients!

Journalism has to be independent or else it’s marketing. That’s the theory anyway. In practice things are changing, but are they doing so for the better?

In media training sessions I sometimes get asked why journalists won’t let an interviewee change their quotes. The reasons are many: by asking to check quotes you’re hinting that we can’t do our jobs, our job is to reflect what was said rather than what you wish you’d said (unless there’s a factual inaccuracy), and above all we’re supposed to be independent and not someone who works for you. Except things are getting a little blurred.

Advertorials have been commonplace for some time. The deal is relatively simple: a company pays a publisher to write (or supplies the copy for) something that looks like an article but is in fact an advert. As long as it says something like “advertising promotion” across the top, the reader knows what they’re getting and nobody minds. The unwritten rule is that it has to be well written.

Now look at this article: http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/forbes-aims-to-bring-journalists-and-advertisers-together-on-the-page-through-new-co-storytelling-approach/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2016-11-21&utm_source=Press+Gazette+Daily+new+layout

For those who don’t want to, the essence is that for six years, Forbes has been putting journalistic copy alongside marketing copy so that there is an element of what it calls “co-storytelling”. So someone like me might write something on one page about, say, the Google Pixel phone, while someone from Google writes their account on another. Their copy gets labelled as promotional.

So far, so good. Except…would that someone like me be writing about the thing in the first place if the company hadn’t booked the promotion? Therefore, if the piece wouldn’t have existed without the fee, is it really independent?

Bloggers

There are variants of this, of course. Bloggers are an interesting example, sometimes not getting paid at all and some getting paid to promote products directly, without a clue as to why anyone should object. The unpaid variety sneer at journalists, who they say wouldn’t be writing about anything at all if they weren’t being paid by someone.

Which is a reasonable point of view. And then of course there’s the fake news – remember when Donald Trump said if he were to go into politics he’d be a Republican because they’ll believe anything? It’s a great quote but according to fact-checking site Snopes, he never said it.

For the moment at least, I’m going to stick with advising clients that the journalist is going to want to stay independent, won’t allow them to change quotes, won’t let them vet articles before they appear.

But I’ll be watching what happens carefully in case things change.

What is journalistic balance?

Balance is an issue that often comes up in my media training sessions. Will the journalist be biased, I’m asked, and is there anything that can be done about it? I tend to tell them it’s complicated. I’m honestly not dodging the issue.

In the UK at least, broadcasters are charged with reporting things impartially – here’s chapter and verse from Ofcom. There’s no similar law in, say, the US, which is why they can have Fox News and we can’t. Equally there is no such law covering printed matter, which is why when there’s a general election or EU referendum the papers will come out in favour of one side or the other.

All of which makes it very interesting to hear that Birkbeck College has published a paper stating that the BBC has devoted twice as much airtime to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s critics as to his supporters. This surely means the BBC is biased and therefore in breach of the charter by which it exists?

It’s tempting to think so. My answer is more complex: there’s an issue about “journalistic balance” and it’s a lot more difficult than just “publish opposite views and give them equal weight”.

What is balance?

The question has come up in relation to politics and I want to take it away from there for the moment. The name of Jeremy Corbyn tends to arouse strong emotions (I’ll come back to him later I promise). Likewise, during the EU debate, there were plenty of objections from both sides to suggest a bias against them.

So I want to have a look first at what I was taught about good journalistic practice and then look at how it may have let us down in the past. I’ll then bring it back to the present day.

In the dim and distant past…

I became a full-time journalist in 1989. It’s a fair while ago but the teaching on how to write a good news story is still imparted today: you get someone stating a view and you get the opposite view in as well.

This is of course in the case of news stories in which there is any room for controversy. “Andy Murray wins Wimbledon men’s singles for the second time” is a fairly uncontroversial statement because it’s demonstrably true. Other stories are less so. In the tech business world in which I’ve specialised over the years you might have “Study shows that outsourcing creates rather than eliminates jobs”, which would have been based on research such as this piece from Loughborough University’s Centre for Global Sourcing and Services. There is plenty of room for a “balancing quote” as we call them on whether it creates the jobs that suit the people who have just lost theirs, or whether it’s correct in every instance.

So we have balance – a 50/50 view – and if that’s in place in an article, many people will confirm that the job of an impartial journalist has been done.

Let’s look at that again and use another example.

Bad science and climate change

One of my favourite books that references journalism is Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science”. It’s a collection of his Guardian articles and he continues to collate them on his website.

As an aside, one of the things to which he objects is the misuse of numbers and incomprehension of figures. So if someone says “coffee doubles a particular group’s risk of getting cancer” it makes a good headline, until you realise that it’s gone up from one person in a sample of fifty million to two people – it’s still tiny.

The other thing he hates is the idea of balance being presented as a 50/50 thing. If three times as many people believe one thing as the other, then why is a 50/50 split on television supposed to be “impartial”?

You can represent this through graphics, infographics and whatever you wish – I think I’ll leave it to comedian John Oliver, who took five minutes to look at the climate change issue. A lot of broadcasters present climate change and balance as a 50/50 issue, particularly in the US: here’s the five-minute sketch in which he nails the issue once and for all in my view:

Obviously climate change matters. However, some things matter even more.

Children’s health

I said I didn’t want to discuss politics (although I will in a minute) because it provokes high emotions. OK, so, kids with autism…that’s right, I’m going to discuss the MMR vaccine controversy of recent years, and more particularly the press coverage of it.

In 1998 a paper appeared in the British Medical Journal asserting that there were possible links between autism and children and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. This Wikipedia page sums it up – the first couple of paragraphs tell you the basics of the story. The research was later proven to be completely fraudulent.

What concerns me as a journalist interested in balance is that there were never as many medically qualified people supporting the scare stories as there were against. However, Wikipedia, in examining the role of the press, cites numerous studies in which the press was found to be overemphasising the weight of the “experts” confirming the fraudulent research. It even quotes one source concerned that the original doctor and his followers were able to refute the science just by standing there and saying it wasn’t true. Ben Goldacre’s book is an excellent read on the subject.

This sort of reportage can’t be right. It does, however, stand up to the “one source for, one against” mantra to which a lot of journalists adhere. There’s another thing: I don’t have any research but anecdotally, when I tell people news stories are likely to carry their own view and a contrasting one, they assume that’s reasonable enough. If they’re talking about which smart watch is best or something, that’s fine, there’s no harm done. Think, though, of the increases in measles, mumps and rubella following the MMR scare. Reflect also that presidential hopeful Donald Trump still believes in the link.

This stuff matters.

Back to politics

So I come back to the coverage of Corbyn and the Birkbeck criticisms and I apply different figures. I’m hypothesising here, I don’t actually believe this stuff but bear with me a second.

The problem is apparently that the BBC is quoting twice as many people against Jeremy Corbyn as they are in his favour. Similar criticisms have been made by UKIP, pro-Europe campaigners and goodness knows who else recently, but let’s stick with Corbyn.

His MPs passed a vote of no confidence in him at the end of June, the result being 172-40. That’s a ratio of over 4:1 against him from his own elected representatives – the 2:1 against him from the BBC starts to look arguably biased in his favour as a result.

The counter-argument is that many people have joined his party since he became leader. It’s now up to around half a million according to this Guardian report. So there is an argument that the MPs may no longer be representative. We don’t know how they’ll vote in the forthcoming leadership election, but let’s be overly generous and say that the MPs have got it wrong and they all decide to vote for Corbyn in the end (I did say I didn’t believe this stuff). That’s half a million votes out of nine million who voted Labour in the last general election, and out of 47-odd million who are eligible to vote assuming last year’s figure hasn’t changed that much.

So, on what do you base the notion of balance in this instance? The MPs? The membership, which is going to vote again by September 24th and only then will we know what they actually think? Or just throw in the towel, do 50/50 as Birkbeck seems to think is ideal?

Balance is complexity

This is the bit in which I do a bit of towel-throwing myself and concede that I don’t have an answer. The MMR and climate change instances confirm that going for 50/50 and calling it balanced is trite. In principle presenting both sides should allow people to make their own minds up. In practice, an appearance on TV or in print adds weight to a view and in turn influences people. They believe there is a solid school of thought when there may only be one or two outliers.

However, suggesting the BBC is too generous to Jeremy Corbyn when it’s under fire for allowing his critics too much space is also ridiculous. That same amplification that adds weight to ridiculous views in the 50/50 system will also amplify and possibly distort other views. Reporters often see themselves outside the exchange of views and the substance of debates; in fact we become part of it, and a very high profile part as well.

If I had one message, one takeaway from this blog that I’d like everyone to consider, it would be this: asking for balance is fine, but we don’t actually know what it means. Reports, academic and otherwise, that suggest bias, tend to assume that 50/50 would be unbiased and in many cases it’s just not.

Will the journalist be biased? It’s complicated.

Andrea Leadsom interview: watch what you say

An interview is a great thing for a business or politician as long as the basic rules are understood. My media training is designed to help people understand them and make the most of the opportunity.

I don’t train politicians. I assume they’ll know loads about the process. This is why the interview from Andrea Leadsom, Conservative Party leadership (and therefore prime ministerial) candidate over the weekend was such a shock.

Her perspective is quoted in the Daily Telegraph today – she claims the Times interview, in which she apparently said she would be a better prime minister than her rival Theresa May, because she is a mother (May had recently given an interview in which she confirmed that she and her husband had been unable to produce a child), contained the opposite of her views.

The BBC has her quote from today’s paper here. She says she was pressed for her views. I highlight the BBC’s account rather than that of the Telegraph itself because a) it doesn’t disappear behind a paywall after you’ve looked at a few stories, and b) it contains the audio of the original interview. I don’t think she’s being pressed at all.

You can’t control your quotes from an interview

The most telling point came on Saturday when the Times interview appeared in the paper. She Tweeted that it was “Truly appalling and the opposite of what I said”, which the audio clip demonstrates is measurably untrue. Her ideas on media, though, are curious to say the least.

Here’a a cutting from the Daily Mail. Some way down it, she makes the statement: “In front of The Times correspondent and photographer, I made clear repeatedly that nothing I said should be used in any way to suggest that Theresa May not having children had any bearing whatever on the leadership election.”

Let’s get this straight. She started by angrily denying what she’d said and demanding that the Times produce a transcript (her Tweets demanding this appear to have been deleted but the Mail piece quotes them and I can confirm I saw them on Saturday). The Times not only did so but produced audio. She then defends her position by stating that she had instructed the journalist on how to use her quotes.

This is staggering from someone who considers themselves experienced enough to become prime minister. Interviewees at all levels need to understand that the journalist will consider themselves responsible to the editor and above all to the readers; if someone says something that is informative about their character and judgment, it gets reported. There is no “don’t use this quote in that way” – you can’t un-say things. If you don’t want it reported, don’t say it.

Leadsom emerges damaged, by this and by today’s revelation that she apologised to May by text rather than in person or at least with a call. She says in a statement today that she has been naive and she is right. It’s also That innocence in a person who might have to represent the UK in its negotiations with the EU as to some sort of deal on trade and movement might be unhelpful; in an negotiation with, say, Vladimir Putin, it could be positively dangerous.

Very few of us want to be prime minister. The lesson, though, is worth noting for anyone who’s going to be interviewed. Once you’ve said something, it’s said. The journalist doesn’t work for you and as long as the quote is accurate and in context we can use it as our judgment suggests is best. If you don’t want to see it in print, don’t say it.

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Photo: flickr: Policy Exchange

New Day, old news, dead in the water

Photo: Trinity Mirror

That was quick. A few weeks ago when I was blogging about the launch of New Day, the first new newspaper since the i launched, I said it would need more than neutrality to attract the readership it needed to survive. I wished it well not because I thought it stood a chance but as I said in the original piece, why wouldn’t you?

I didn’t think it was particularly good but I didn’t realise that New Day would be gone as quickly as that. Today the BBC, the Guardian, Sky News and others have confirmed that tomorrow’s 50th edition will be the last due to poor sales.

So what went wrong?

Positive spin

The reasons are numerous but let’s start with a favourite bugbear of mine: there are no new rules. Love or hate the press (you’d be better off in the middle), there are some elements that don’t change. Bad news sells, sex sells, and they always have. Many journalists including me try to rise above this but we all know that the Sun did very well out of Page 3 for many years. I don’t care who the celebrity couple with the superinjunction about their threesome are, but I comprehend that when a newspaper breaks it in England it’ll sell or get loads of hits on its website.

New Day came out against some of that. It would put a positive news agenda forward, its editor said. Let’s put that in context: the Prime Minister is asked questions over his father’s investments in Panama, the Chancellor has to climb down over a number of measures in his budget, the junior doctors feel forced to go on strike, meanwhile the opposition is waylaid by allegations of antisemitism and New Day wanted to run a positive news agenda. I’d suggest that’s admirable in a way but foolhardy in most others.

Even when there was positive news to report its schedule didn’t always allow it to do so. Here’s a clue: name the only paper in the UK that apparently didn’t notice Leicester City’s football news over the weekend – clue, its initials are N. D. It had to go to press before the result was known. I know next to nothing about football except that it’s the one with the round ball and no sticks, but even I could see the importance of that result.

New Day, old technology

It also came out against the idea of digital editions or publishing on the Web, which is coincidentally exactly how consumers appear to be enjoying their papers at the moment (we’re probably the last generation who’ll refer to “papers”).

This is of course broad brush stuff, and some successes do appear to go against whatever is intuitive. That only works when they have something else to offer, though, and New Day’s content appeared bland in the extreme. Roy Greenslade in the Guardian also points to confusion over the price. To me, as long as it’s pocket change, that’s a detail.

It gives me no pleasure to have been proven right about the New Day so quickly. I’m a journalist, and fewer jobs for hacks like me is firmly in my “bad news” pile. The New Day was a non-starter, though; it gave readers the news they’ve never been inclined to buy in a format they no longer appear to want, and scheduled itself so that it missed the promised positivity when it happened in the late evening.

What could possibly go right?

Cameron turns a drama into a crisis

The current turmoil surrounding UK prime minister David Cameron, including five different announcements about his tax affairs over the last seven days and culminating in the release of his tax return details, is a masterclass in how not to do media relations.

The root of the story is simpler than the hype might have you believe. His father owned a business and made an investment on the young Dave’s behalf. Dave sold the shares before he became Prime Minister alongside all the other shareholdings he had, and paid all appropriate taxes. Unless you have an objection to buying and selling shares, and I know some people do, that’s it. Experts have confirmed that the “offshore” element was not a tax dodge.

So on Monday the official line was that it was a private matter, said a spokeswoman. On Tuesday Cameron himself clarified that he had no shares. On the Wednesday the government issued a statement saying he and his family did not benefit from offshore funds and then added a further statement to say they wouldn’t in future.

On Thursday the PM confirmed that he’d owned shares and sold them and over the weekend he published his tax details.

Ridiculous delay

I have some sympathy with Cameron this time, but in spite of his request that people blame him rather than his advisors, who on earth was advising him about this?

Here’s a little trick if you want to avoid this sort of flare-up when you’ve done nothing wrong. Ask yourself: what’s the worst that could happen? In this instance, the worst that could happen was that people would find out that nothing illegal and probably not immoral happened. Had he come out with the whole lot on Monday and said “Of course, nothing to hide, this was actually reported by the press in 2012 but let me get you my tax details so we can have full disclosure as they do in America…” he would have looked a lot more transparent.

As it is he looks kind of shifty. The damage done is going to last a while. The PM needs to be seen as trustworthy, particularly with the EU vote coming up and although it’s evident that there has been no wrongdoing, he’s left a smell of “why was that such hard work, is he afraid something else will come out?”

For someone who was in the Conservative Party’s PR operation in the John Major years this is pretty embarrassing. The lesson the rest of us can learn from this is to play the “what’s the worst that can happen” game on ourselves; what if we give a full, honest and frank answer to a difficult question so it won’t come and bite us later?


My thanks to Alan Burkitt-Gray for the correction on the timing of the prime minister’s years in PR, also for the information that he was working for the Conservative Party and not the government at the time. I have amended the text accordingly.

Do you need help with your media engagements? Fill in the form below and I’ll get in touch – or call on 07973 278780. Unless you’re Prime Minister, in which case get an advisor to do it and I’ll coach them too.

Image: Flickr: Brett Jordan

Journalism is not part of your content strategy

I had a discussion with a contact the other day. He wanted to place some journalism as a precursor to doing something commercial with a publication.

Seen from the marketing position only it looks reasonable enough. Magazines and websites are mostly commercial enterprises and will form part of your content strategy.

Only…that’s not how journalism works. Here are a few reasons why not:

  1. Our only selling point as an entity in our own right is our independence. Immediately we submit ourselves to being part of someone else’s content strategy, we’ve failed in our basic mission.
  2. Our readers trust us to be independent on the same basis. It might sound as if I’m taking this a bit seriously but we do, genuinely, care about the readers – which is why, whenever there’s an advertorial placed, it will have “in association with” or something written above it. In a well-resourced magazine or website, the editorial content will absolutely stand on its own.
  3. One argument I’ve heard is that if we’re commercial enterprises we need to be flexible in order to be viable. OK, but if we started giving away editorial as part of a “commercial” arrangement, where would the advertiser’s incentive to spend money come from? We’d be giving away our crown jewels for nothing – and undermining their only value simultaneously.
  4. It’s possible or indeed probable, particularly if you’re a tech company, that the publication’s brand is older and arguably more valuable than yours. No journalist will ever say this to your face but have a think: you reckon the Times or Telegraph are going to risk their brand reputations for a couple of thousand quid’s worth of promotion you might one day throw their way? (Or not..?) We’re businesses in our own right, with our own objectives and values. Marketers who regard us as extensions of their own operation will get short shrift.
  5. You can add the journalist’s personal reputation to point 4. None of us want to be thought of as the sort of person who’ll sneak a plug for a client in on a promise of further money rather than writing exclusively in the interests of the readers, although as this blog post outlines some way in, I’m aware there are some dubious practices around.

Honestly, your position as an advertiser or prospective advertiser with a magazine or website won’t matter to a decent editor or journalist. When I was in the trade press years ago the ad team would constantly try to find out what we were reviewing, what we were writing about, with a view to selling ads on the back of it. Other than general subject guidelines and sometimes a public features list (if we were doing a round-up of printers, for example, then of course we’d let the ad team know – but we wouldn’t say which models we were looking at or whether the reviews were positive) the contents of the magazine were confidential to the editorial team until publication day.

By all means there are a few poorly-resourced magazines that will throw editorial into a commercial deal and not tell the readers. The readers will eventually twig, they will stop trusting the magazine, the magazine will go under. The vast majority of reputable publications will not, repeat not, use their editorial content as a pawn in a commercial game.

Do you need someone to work with you on understanding how to work with the media? I can help – contact me on the form below or on 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.