12 January 2017
By Adam Leigh
Consider, if you will, two seemingly unconnected stories with potentially seismic implications for our industry.
The first concerns regulation of the British press – one of the many delightful gifts David Cameron bequeathed his successor. This week saw the deadline for consultation on stage two of the Leveson recommendations, and in particular, their most contentious clause, which could force news outlets to pay both parties’ costs in libel or privacy cases unless they sign up to the new regulator, Impress.
Impress is strongly resisted by the majority of national news publishers. They have set up their own regulatory body, Ipso – very much in the image of its toothless and discredited predecessor, the Press Complaints Commission.
It is reported that up to 140,000 individual representations have been made as part of the consultation process. At some stage, Theresa May will actually have to decide what to do, attempting to reconcile natural industry self-interest with the spirit of Lord Leveson’s report.
The second is the launch by Facebook, shaken by consistent and well-justified criticism of its role in spreading so-called “fake news”, of its new Journalism Project – working with media organisations to raise standards of reporting, and educating users in how to distinguish fact from fiction.
It’s a hugely significant concession for a company which, despite distributing news content to 1.8 billion people around the world, has always cast itself as a technology company rather than a media business.
The common denominator here is the issue of public trust. And rather than purely being an issue for the media industry, it’s something that should preoccupy us all.
Because if consumers were unable to trust in the things they read, where would that leave an industry whose raison d’etre is delivering coverage, and where success is often measured in column inches? The past 12 months in particular, with such deeply polarising news events on both sides of the Atlantic, and myriad examples of suspect reporting, offer a glimpse of a future in which the ability to tell credible stories and shape opinion on behalf of our clients could be seriously compromised.
The PR industry depends on maintaining the authority of news organisations and the public trust that flows from it. And consequently, the roles of both Facebook and print media are crucial – yet each side poses resistance.
From the press, resistance comes not least because Impress, as currently constituted, is funded by former Formula One boss and tabloid target Max Mosley. And, besides, its default mode has always been to suggest that anything other than self-regulation is tantamount to state censorship.
From Facebook, because “freedom of movement for information” is so deeply woven into the brain-folds of the internet’s ruling geekocracy, even recognising fake news as a problem strikes at sacred principles.
Facebook’s Journalism Project is a welcome recognition of reality. We must now hope that Mrs May displays the courage, political skill and urgency she needs to negotiate an effective, workable, palatable solution to the regulatory conundrum. Our future may depend on it.
Adam Leigh is Strategy Director of W and former deputy editor of The Independent
PR Week, 12 January 2017