Monday, April 02, 2007

The ethics of the 'empty chair'

Like many people, I watched Jeremy Paxman on the BBC Newsnight programme Michael White of the Guardian and "Guido Fawkes" a political blogger.

The discussion talked of the relationship between Journalists, bloggers and politicians.

The debate told how some politician 'punish' some journalists by not allowing access, the 'empty chair' whereby access is denied to the fourth estate when the politician has had some sort of bust up with a newspaper, TV channel or journalist. The other side of this trade off is when journalists do not report or who selectively report about a politician in a way that harms the the politicians standing with the electorate and other constituencies.

This is, of course, an example of the all too cosy relationship between Public Relations and the Media.

Underlying this debate is a serious point.

Who is all this content really for? Would it be, just by mis-chance, electors or others who want to be informed about the events among politicians and government?

If not. It does not matter much, other than it is a huge and costly exercise affecting the public purse.

If it is, then there is a big issue and one would no longer doubt why people are turned off by political maneuvering to manipulate the information they need but a wrangle at their expense.

Lets take this further and into the realm of all Public Relations.

Lets suppose an organisation wants to get its message across to a constituency and relies on the media to act as the purveyor. Is this legitimate? Is it ethical?

There can only be legitimacy if this is the only method for communication. Today, of course, this is not so. There are endless channels for communication. The traditional Press, radio and TV are but three conduits among many (The press release is no more than a form of blog post that saves lazy journalists setting up effective RSS feeds).

If, on the other hand, the Press is being used to add legitimacy to a story, then it has to do the job. It should not be selective or deny access because it has had some sort of tiff. It cannot be childish about it. Today, the press release can find its way onto a web site; the background can be offered and debated using blogs, wikis or any other form of publishing and social media. On the other hand the Press can be critical, it can add that most precious of values, time and expertise. It has a resource and journalistic expertise to put the story into critical context. The same might be said of bloggers but without the authority of the publishing house. The closer the media gets to PR the less it is valued for its critical faculty and its authority.

At the same time, when a person (minister, politician, celebrity, company, brand) plays the empty chair routine and and does not provide access to a journalist, programme or newspaper, the media response has, once again, to be critical and explain to its audience that it is being denied access and transparently explain why it is not able to report or discuss issues in public.

The public, including the elector in the case of Fawkes, Paxman and White, can then make a judgement.

Pretending that the present state is 'News as Usual' demonstrates a lack of ethics by both parties. It undermines the authority of both and diminishes trust.

An ignored person, politician, celebrity, company or brand has YouTube and blogs available all the time. Its use is news on a number of fronts. An ignored journalist has the privileged position of showing how a lack of transparency is against 'the public interest'.

The status quo, in an age of social media corrupts both PR and journalism and both sides need to recognise it if only to re-build trust among their respective constituents.

This is not just a political issue, it is an issue for all practitioners. Why only use Press releases and private briefings when the whole world can see the story for what it is using social media.

It is time the publishing houses looked at what they can offer that blogs can't. Expert, timely, critical, reporting.

It is time for PR to act ethically and expose stories to their publics and not hide behind copy takers, the so called journalists of our time.