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Journalism, public relations and democracy
Posted on Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Journalism, public relations and democracy

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the UK about the integrity of journalism following the Leveson report and the phone hacking scandal which precipitated the enquiry.

And there is no doubt that those responsible for such appalling practices, purportedly carried out in the name of journalism, should be brought to account for their actions and thankfully – that judicial process has taken place.

Yet there is a fine balance between weeding out those tyrannical elements from the great and valuable trade of journalism and throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Journalism is fundamental to the preservation of democracy anywhere in the world – not just here in the UK. It’s a big claim, but one that is easy to defend. If we allow journalism to become suppressed by unwieldy levels of legislation and restriction, we will have no mechanism left with which to question those in power.

And questioning those in power, whether they have been appointed by their people or have imposed some kind of regime upon a nation, is how we monitor and understand the horrors that unfold almost on a daily basis across the globe.

The practice of public relations, or PR to those who prefer acronyms, is now a fundamental element of that journalistic mix. Granted – few PR practitioners are busy documenting the troubles in the Middle East from the front line, but we still contribute news material to the media. And that material should still abide by those established journalistic measures, of being a fair and accurate report of whatever the topic is.

So I will stick my neck out a bit here. Leave the journalists alone. There are plenty of ethical guidelines for the practice, which have long been managed by the Press Complaints Commission and which are fully workable. The only action that is needed - is for those responsible for infringement of those guidelines to be appropriately punished by a court of law.

However, PR as a trade has no such governing guidelines. Organisations such as the CIPR will lay claim to some form of guidance, but it is not formalised or accredited with any authority. The real crippler here is the volume of ‘PR’ degrees, which do not cover off the principles of insightful and unbiased journalistic practice sufficiently to produce high calibre practitioners.

Now this is not to suggest that public relations companies are creating problems of the kind that kick-started the Leveson enquiry, but as a post-graduate of journalism and a well established PR practitioner, my passion is the news. Reading, interpreting and contributing to that mechanism which allows the world to see what is happening. If I hadn’t learnt how that news-gathering process works – from the inside out, I wouldn’t feel confident in handling the issues I’m called to deal with now.

And my call to action in this blog is this.
Today, the media are reporting the death of one of their own. American journalist James Foley died to bring people across the world a true picture of the horrors of the IS uprising in Syria.

He was doing what was right and journalists like James and the UK’s own Rupert Hamer, who died in Afghanistan, deserve freedom to uncover those stories so that we do not continue through our days without understanding.

Those same freedoms must apply to our political correspondents in the corridors of Westminster. They are there to uncover the scandals and crookedness behind the system and to help us to demand fairer governance.

If legislation is to be brought to bear on this great trade – then let’s at least start with entry level requirements for PR practitioners, which must encompass some measurable, formal training in journalism.

Because if that seed is sown correctly – then those graduating and stepping into this trade will have no defence if they choose to deviate from those teachings.