This Venn diagram was doing the rounds a few weeks ago and it purported to show the quality and impartiality of various US media organisations. It serves as an interesting illustration of how outlets can be broadly embedded along invisible fault lines that run from left to right across the political spectrum and from “click-bait” to “complex” on the quality scale.
It wouldn’t take a keen student of political journalism to build a similar model for the UK. What is more interesting is the increasingly tenuous position of those outlets occupying that central sweetspot. The “circle of trust” if you like. It used to be the goal of many large news organisations to sit snugly inside that circle. Impartial and apolitical. Not too stuffy and overblown, but serious enough to give the average Joe an occasional flush of pride in their intellectualism. The Goldilocks zone, where the porridge is neither too hot, nor too cold.
The BBC, for example, put a century of graft into finding the perfect recipe for that porridge. Now they are being barred from the US President’s press briefings.
So what has happened? Well. Post-Trump, post-Brexit - in a world where the phrase “alternative facts” has gatecrashed the lexicon - the circle of trust has been eroded away. Now it only matters where YOU sit on that diagram. YOUR politics and YOUR intelligence levels determine YOUR truth. Ultimately, that means you will end up trusting only a handful of sources and everything else becomes, by default, fake. Or FAKE! If you are the leader of the free world…
Even the centre-ground media you used to consume without question are now being pilloried for their “extremism”: EU “Leavers” and the Alt-right see the BBC and the New York Times as a bunch of dangerous pinkoes who habitually sneer at the will of the people; Members of the “Liberal Elite” view the London Times and Wall Street Journal as puppets dancing to the tune of Murdoch, Bannon and the rest.
Tempers fray. Hackles rise. You vent into your social media echo chambers and your friends validate and consolidate your myopia.
For someone who has always sat snugly in the centre of the diagram (or painfully on the fence, if you prefer), these are unsettling times. I have always wanted my news untarnished by politics or complexity. Give it to me straight, or not at all. It may be naivety (and there is certainly an element of my own myopia in this) but I feel particularly bad for the dear old Beeb.
My late father, the broadcaster Nick Clarke, worked for them for over thirty years. Any whispers of bias wounded him. In his whole life, I never knew how he voted, and even in his unguarded moments, his true politics were hard to decipher. Truth was his currency - not ratings or fame. I truly believe that this inherent fairness is still present in most of the BBC’s current journalism - but they could be forgiven for packing it in and embracing the liberal stereotype they have been accused of.
So where to turn in this maelstrom of mud-slinging?
Well if you narrow your eyes and look very carefully, you will see one news organisation slap bang in the middle of the circle. Only two letters: An “A” and a “P”. Except, in the UK, the letters would be reversed to a “P” and an “A”. TheAssociated Press and the Press Association. Two news agencies that were built on truth and impartiality, and now find themselves clinging on to them for dear life. But cling on they must.
In my old life in the news distribution game, news agencies were very much my thing. PR Newswire paid them large sums to carry our clients’ content to a sceptical press, and we held them up as bastions of impartiality who could sprinkle magic dust over a humble press release and somehow make it credible.
For years, more than weekly, I would do training sessions for colleagues and clients, and my schtick to illustrate the importance of choosing the right channel to carry your content was to compare the storied Press Association newsfeed with the perils of unsolicited email, where your precious press release might nestle neatly in the inbox of an important journalist in amongst the scammers and the spammers who are trying to flog him Viagra online, or the sudden proliferation of recently-expired Nigerian grandfathers who have left billions of dollars in unmarked banknotes and need to urgently share them with the business editor from the Daily Telegraph.
The joke now is on me. The cartoonish villainy of the Viagra-peddlers and “dead” Nigerian pensioners now has just as much currency as any other piece of information flying around the internet. Pick a story. Believe it if it suits you, and then angrily syndicate it.
Most right-thinking folk might still see the PA or the BBC and the email spam merchants as being at opposite ends of the truth spectrum, but there is now a slippery, ambiguous slope separating the two. It winds through commercial, unaccountable entertainment behemoths like Buzzfeed, past social media free-for-alls like facebook, twitter and YouTube, and then into even murkier territory where sensationalist news outlets on both sides like Breitbart on the right and theAlternative Media Network on the liberal left are wilfully perpetrating large-scale deception to fuel outrage and chaos.
This is the world where a divisive figure like Trump can prevail without getting laughed out of town. He is the first sitting president to overtly discredit the very fabric of organised news and drive the agenda himself. It is a strategy not a million miles away from the Chinese or the North Koreans, where news is not news until it has passed through the hands of half-a-dozen carefully chosen civil servants. Astonishing and terrifying in equal measure.
It is a time for calm heads, but many in the liberal press have not covered themselves in glory either. Most will not budge from their views on immigration, refugees or the EU and try to understand the great groundswell of discontent that has manifested fairly definitively at the polls on both sides of the Atlantic. Channel 4 News ran a whole week of programmes on the “Fake News” phenomenon, but spent most of it sneering at Trump and Farage and clapping themselves on the back for being so clever.
And so the divides deepen.
More than ever, we must cherish the purveyors of truth. Build them up again. Hold them accountable. Make them work for us.
We already turn to news agencies in times of crisis, although most of us don’t even know it.
But in fast-moving news stories like the Paris attacks of November 2015, it is AFP, AP and Reuters who are deferred to for “facts”. It didn’t really matter where you watched the grisly events unfold that night: The BBC, Sky, The Guardian website - even Fox News. The rolling news channels all held off on reporting the “facts” until they were confirmed by recognised news agencies. When the chips are down and there is a common enemy, people want certainty - and traditional journalism is grudgingly allowed back into the fold.
Eventually, then, things will come full circle. There has to be a saturation point coming soon. The worse things get, the more the restless centre-ground will demand that order is restored.
It is worth remembering this when it comes to corporate content. Sensationalism and viral social media campaigns might have their place, but core audience groups might well be tiring of all the noise. The problem is, if major news organisations are struggling for credibility, what chance the small businesses looking to promote their products?
Well, the good news is it’s never been easier to reach your core audiences directly. Email, online, social media - the people are out there - but they are tired of the scammers and the chancers. Tired of the fact-alterers, the sneering intellectuals and the presidential propaganda machines.
So PRs and corporate communicators have a responsibility to get back to basics. Choose your words wisely. Fact check. Corroborate. Sprinkle your content with some of that old-fashioned news agency magic dust. And perhaps the concept of “truth” will see its stock rise once more.
One can only hope.
"The BBC could be forgiven for packing it in and embracing the liberal stereotype they have been accused of. "