Wednesday, 20 June 2012
Tonight I attended an excellent Gorkana PR debate on the question, 'is the press losing its influence?'
The panel really was special, the best I have seen for an event of its kind. Chaired by Greg Dyke, it consisted of The Rt Hon. David Davis MP, Andrew Neil, Sue Douglas and John Lloyd (author of the book, What The Media Are Doing to Our Politics, the subject for my MA dissertation).
Greg Dyke opened the debate with some statistics from a new YouGov poll in the wake of Leveson.
Apparently (excuse the figures I jotted them down and will check for accuracy when public) 82 percent of people think the press are out of control, 44 percent think they have lots of influence but 44 percent think they have less influence than 10 years ago - a mixed bag, perhaps indicative of the complexity of Leveson and the fallout from the hacking scandal and how the wider public understands this issue.
On that note Greg Dyke reminded us that the Daily Star is the only print title to have not seen a major decline in readership, which drew raised eyebrows from David Davis MP. (Davis has occupied a peculiar space since 2008 and it struck me many of his former Cabinet colleagues would gladly swap roles with his luxurious, not quite the tormentor in chief, position.)
Andrew Neil, the consummate performer, spoke brilliantly all night. He quickly established John Lloyd as his sparing partner, once amusingly dismissing Lloyd's statistics on the Scotsman's former readership by pointing out 'I used to run the paper, you know'.
Neil felt that digital media had actually enhanced the reach of some titles, citing the Guardian throughout as a now international brand - a point David Davis used to question why more of the press didn't invest in the brand (maybe they can see a role for us PRs, after all?)
The challenge, all agreed, was monetising this and Neil became visibly frustrated that the Alan Rusbridger has this reach yet refuses to believe a payed content model is the answer. Envy, I suspected.
The panel agreed that local newspapers were dying and didn't share the view of celebrity questioner, John Stapleton, that the trade (not a profession, we're all electricians, yelled Neil) was missing the upbringing of sitting in courts holding local government to account. As for weak nationals, Sue Douglas shared the frustration that titles which should have left the marketplace were kept on life support by investors looking for a slice of the establishment pie.
PRs, alas, didn't escape, and we drew some piercing glances from the panel when Greg Dyke pointed out that there were more PR people than journalists. Pity they didn't expand on this to discuss the challenges that make people enter this industry, but I understand time was precious.
Andrew Neil was, at least, more scornful of 'fact-free over-payed, waste of space opinion columnists, whom he felt should be replaced by investigative reporters. One for Charlie Brooker to discuss, that one.
On the subject of tabloids it was pointed out by Sue Douglas-who is rumoured to be keen to start a new newspaper- that they must embrace new media opportunities to drive commercial revenue and all agreed tabloids were at risk as diversification meant the worlds of sport and celebrity were no longer owned by the red-tops.
Sadly, the debate didn't then discuss Twitter as a serious force for breaking new ground. I felt this was a missed opportunity. For instance, David Davis claimed single story criticisms had little influence but he failed to consider what if this story was shared by influential Tweeters or bloggers. The panel claimed journalist live in an 'analogue world' well I have to say it seemed most of the panel did too, bar Andrew Neil.
The last part of the debate looked for signs of where the unhealthy press/political relationship may have started. No consensus was reached but David Davis correctly mentioned New Labour's admiration for Clinton's election campaigns.
New Labour and Cameron both came under fire but their examples were then used to show how the press was losing influence; from the 1992 'it was the Sun wot won it', to the last election where 75% backed Conservatives, yet Cameron failed to win a majority.
Phone hacking itself was defended by Sue Douglas who claimed if it was integral to a matter of huge public interest and the the journalist would be prepared to go to court, then it could be justified.
Leveson didn't sit well with the panel who derided David Cameron for creating it - although the smirk on David Davis' face betrayed his enjoyment at certain witnesses being called to account - 'LOL' said Andrew Neil, to huge laughter.
Neil finished by claiming he would like the result of Leveson to be a code of conduct enforceable by independent people. David Davis was not in favour of a statutory regulator, a point all agreed upon.
In the end Leveson nearly brought a tear to Sue Douglas' eye but, as John Lloyd pointed out, it had been one hell of an insight for the rest of us.
And, with that paraphrase, I bid goodnight - once I have set Leveson to record on Sky Plus.