Blog by Polaris managing director Ben Pinnington. Picture AFT.
In reading a carefully written statement to the media yesterday the Prime Minister’s under-siege special adviser Dominic Cummings made sure his side of the story was heard, in what had become an increasingly one-sided debate regarding travelling to his parents home in Durham during lockdown.
I make no judgement on the rights or wrongs of his actions but was pleased to see he did not continue to bury his head in the sand as the brickbats rained down. While he has been slow to react Cummings had to defend himself as the criticism detonated beyond his media and political enemies who have weaponised the issue. At Polaris we have advised many public figures and businesses in the eye of a crisis and time and again heard words along the lines of: ‘don’t bother talking to the press, they print what they want anyway.’ It ranks with: ‘but this is the way we’ve always done it’ as an attitude you dread to hear as a business adviser.
In my training as a journalist I was taught the reporter’s job is to present both sides of the story with equal balance and let the reader or viewer draw their own conclusion. It remains a fundamental principle for any self-respecting journalist, historian or law court for that matter. But the trend of reporters giving their interpretation of a story ‘as analysis’, particularly in broadcast journalism, erodes this core principle and is wrong. Tony Blair’s spin doctor and ex reporter Alistair Campell has made the same point. Opinion is not reporting, it risks bias and, even when well-meant, insults the viewers intelligence.
However, the point about fighting ones corner is one of the most important in media management. That is arguably even more critical now as the media landscape more and more resembles in sporting terms ‘murderball’. As Cummings has found the mainstream press can be whipped into a feeding-frenzy by social media, still a Wild West of shrill, politicised and frequently, and unacceptably, abusive commentary. It seems publishing standards and even the defamation laws that underpin traditional journalism are bulldozed, particularly on Twitter, as the sheer volume of commentary becomes impossible to police and the lines between free speech, abuse and truth become blurred. There are mercifully many exceptions and fine commentators who use Twitter well upholding all that is great about journalism, Henry Winter and Mike Atherton of the Times being thoughtful examples.
But in this febrile environment Cummings was right to argue his case. At least people could consider another perspective on the story and he could correct inaccuracies. Cummings’ intervention mattered because the mainstream regulated media will ‘print what they want’ if you do not talk to them or bother to help them fact check. And as Cummings found he received good airtime yesterday. But taking a defensive hostile position to the media does a disservice to the many reporters who are still upholding the principles of balanced accountable reporting which is so absent from social media. When I was a reporter I remember every complaint had to be reported by the editor to the editor-in-chief with an explaination of what they had done to resolve the matter. At Polaris we have found in recent times that newspapers are receptive to legitimate complaints about balance and prepared to listen and present another side to the story. I fear for the future of these standards as the social media behemoth eclipses traditional regulated press. For Dominic Cummings whether his intervention came too late or will be judged as Janus-faced remains to be seen but at least he got one thing right: in murderball you have to fight to survive.