Editors must put their feet down, cease attending jollies and pursuing knighthoods and insist their journalists hold a magnifying glass up to every scrap of propaganda No 10 produces from now on
Less than three weeks since the general election, and with the embers still glowing, Channel 4 has decided to lift the lid on the machinations of New Labour’s PR machine in a current affairs documentary to be screened tonight.
Undercover in New Labour, a Dispatches documentary, was shot partly by Jenny Kleeman, a reporter wearing hidden cameras who volunteered to work on the party’s election campaign and ended up being drafted in to work at its national PR headquarters in London.
She opened the bidding in the Daily Mail on Friday with a scything attack on the “testosterone-fuelled” regime at the heart of Blair’s re-election machine, showing herself to be disgusted by the cynicism on display in an office where Alastair Campbell and Alan Milburn spent their time high-fiving each other and disdainfully mocking the gullibility of the press and the public they serve.
At one point Ms Kleeman was roused from her bed for an early photocall at which Labour party workers were expected to pose as entirely disinterested members of the public eager to shake the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer by the hand at the unveiling of another poster.
The impression that Tony and Gordon were constantly in touch with – and listening to – the great British public was endlessly stressed, when the reality was that every effort was made to keep them well away from unvetted or spontaneous exposure to cameras or voters.
A file much in use was entitled “real people”, but in reality it was filled with anything but. Instead it listed the names of party supporters in key professions from medicine and the law to the armed forces and the police, who were prepared to appear on TV and in the papers and lie through their teeth that their support for this or that policy was entirely unsolicited.
When access was sought by even the most respectable organs of the press, they were told that the whereabouts of cabinet ministers could not be revealed for “security reasons”, a laughable irony in view of the fact that nobody checked Jenny Kleeman’s credentials as a Labour supporter once, even when she was promoted into the Millbank HQ.
Do we really have to act as though this stuff doesn’t happen? Or doesn’t matter? Am I being naive to think that exposing this depressing vision of a foul-mouthed, bullying and corrupt squad of professional liars will make any difference? I fear so.
It’s everywhere, and as much a part of life now as it was in 1990 when a fake soundbite about babies being chucked out of Kuwaiti incubators whooped up the appetite for Gulf War I. That’s how it’s done.
The issue of accountability in PR has never been more crucial, but who will take a lead? And is singling out New Labour for criticism reasonable when this sort of deception – or, as it has recently been dubbed, “astroturfing” – has been going on for decades in business, especially among the oil, pharmaceutical and tobacco industries?
But if even politics is simply catching up, can we turn a blind eye when the British government is seen to legitimise such dark manipulation of the media to prolong its grip on power? After all, what difference is there between it and the regimes of Richard Nixon in the days of Watergate, or Robert Mugabe today in Zimbabwe?
The invidious processes by which the public can be manipulated into certain modes of behaviour are on record, defined early in the 20th century by the US academic Ed Bernays, the man who actually invented the phrase “public relations”.
Put these methods to work, as did David Ogilvy in advertising and Josef Goebbels, horrifyingly, in German politics, and you achieve the result you seek.
PR behomoths are forever presenting some new process to ensnare a new lump of new biz, but isn’t it time that a cleaner pair of hands are displayed?
It’s time someone in PR took arms against the casual, everyday mendacity of much of what we read and view. Deliberately deceiving and fobbing off the public who pay its salaries with platitudes dressed as sincerity has marked this government as fundamentally corrupt and untrustworthy from the moment the election result was confirmed.
The industry whose methods they misuse so cynically must teach the public to hold a magnifying glass up to every scrap of propaganda No 10 produces from now on, as the Sunday Telegraph did splendidly to Charles Clarke over the weekend, dissecting one of his flabby interviews to reveal the seam of falsehood running through it.
Editors must put their feet down, cease attending jollies and pursuing knighthoods, and insist their journalists give their readership the facts and the confidence to “just say no”.
But maybe there just aren’t the budgets available in cash-strapped journalism and, after all, isn’t it cheaper to keep blowing up the punctured celebrity bubble?
As Noam Chomsky noted in the film Manufacturing Consent: “In my view, celebrity and fame is another crucial example of the indoctrination system… it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. That keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives.”