To share or to shaft? The decision was simple – there was no queasy question of conscience for the Daily Mirror this week. The paper felt morally obliged to shaft Bernie Doherty in defence of truth, honour and integrity in British journalism, and shaft Bernie Doherty it did, good and proper.
This has raised a storm of babble amongst PRs, journalists, celebrities, agents and stars. The excitement is about how the unspoken understanding between PRs and the press was so suddenly and unceremoniously dumped by the Mirror, because the paper felt that the relationship had become too one-sided.
Looking from inside the industry, it’s difficult to assess the level of the public’s awareness of the trade in information and access that shapes much of the tabloid media agenda. Mirror showbiz editor Kevin O’Sullivan clearly thinks people are relatively na¿ve, because his article in Friday’s Times is entitled “The Dirty Secret of Celebrity Splashes”.
Sick of having questions vetted, and sick of toeing the line over copy approval, the Mirror decided first to stuff Richard and Judy for ordering 1,375 words of amendments to a 2,000-word article, and then moved on to shaft Bernie for encouraging the paper to run the Mick/Amanda story.
The Mirror’s frustration over what’s happened to the rules of engagement between the media and PRs is understandable. There are five or six very well-organised, very professional PRs who have the skill to manage the rough and tumble of the mutually beneficial, rewarding relationship that exists between publicity agents and the press.
As every couple will tell you on their 50th wedding anniversary, what makes a relationship work is give and take. So it is with PRs and the press. You win a few, you lose a few, you turn losses into gains. It’s a game, and a good one, and it gives the public interesting and entertaining copy.
Now this fruitful relationship has been jeopardised, and – unjustly – Bernie’s is the first scalp. The relationship has been jeopardised by publicists who’ve left established organisations and by the simultaneous arrival of back-bedroom operators who have tried to rewrite the rules of engagement. They want to control the dice and keep all the cards so that their stars always shine.
This is a bad game – or rather, no game at all – because it gives the public uninteresting and anodyne copy. Take this to its logical conclusion, and you might as well cut out the middle-man and get publicists to edit and publish the papers themselves.
The Mirror has made its stand, and in the process has made a fantastic story out of the story of a story. After years in decline, the paper is suddenly on the ascendant, and its acclaimed coverage of the war marks a huge departure from current tabloid practice. Fired by its success, it might be turning its attentions to the home front, to secure further strategic gains.
It could even be on a mission to rewrite tabloid journalism. It has generated huge coverage for itself, and it has placed itself at the centre of a massive furore about the media (and nobody likes talking up a furore about the media more than the media).
Will the Mirror’s stand whip unruly PRs into line, teach them their place, and herald a brave new era of fearlessly independent reporting, untrammelled by the nods, winks and nudges of the old world order? Will publicists starve the Mirror of information? And when the next killer, exclusive celebrity story comes along, will the Mirror turn it down because there’s the tiniest slither of a thread of a string attached?
I suspect there will be a period of pontification and posturing between the parties, followed by stand-offs, sulks, griping, sniping, and discord, like a long-married couple after a spat. Then this old pair will tiptoe round each other, very cautiously, taking stock of what needs to change to re-establish the relationship. Once a new set of cornerstones are in place, reinvigorated, spirited and refreshed they’ll get up to some new tricks together and revisit some well-loved ones from the past.
The Mirror has shown the media can make good copy by biting back. It adds an exciting new twist to the game. It’s great for readers and it’s great for the PR business. Publicists needed to be shaken out of their complacency. And – as common wisdom has it – everybody needs a good shafting every now and again.