Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Unsightly scramble over EU chocolate

The campaign to persuade Britons to leave the European Union reached a new level of farce over the recent holidays when pro-Brexit supporters claimed the high price of Easter eggs as one reason to support an out vote.

At issue were the “punitive tariffs” imposed by Brussels on cocoa-based products from outside the European Union, which could be renegotiated once the United Kingdom had left the bloc.

But any pretence that this was a serious point degenerated when various Brexit spokespeople resorted to schoolboy humour, claiming the EU made Easter more “egg-spensive”; that supporters of the EU were “rabbiting on” about its virtues and that consumers would be “hopping mad” over the impost.

Even so, with less than three months to go before the referendum that will decide the UK’s fate, voters seem to be tuning in to the Brexit slogans and soundbites rather than having any interest in a serious debate over the consequences of withdrawal.

Polls which originally gave the Remain campaign a healthy lead have narrowed, with one actually suggesting Brexit had a paper-thin winning margin.

Some commentators believe the Brexit campaign is being conducted with greater passion than Remain and the country is sensing this.

However, it comes in the same week as analysts say that Prime Minister David Cameron’s strident support for staying in the EU will cost him his leadership win or lose.

They state that an out vote would certainly force his resignation and replacement by a solid Eurosceptic (read Boris Johnson) who would be better suited to manage untangling the years of European legislation before the UK could actually say goodbye.

Even a close win for Remain might leave Cameron vulnerable to a backlash from the significant number of rabid anti-Europeans on the Conservative backbenches who would want to take it out on the man they considered had cheated them of their prize. 

All this was predicted by Tory grandee Lord Heseltine months ago when he warned the Prime Minister it would be the end of his authority if he allowed himself to be dragged into a slanging match over the EU with senior members of his own party.

Something that could leave a bitter taste in Cameron’s mouth long after the sweetness of Easter has been forgotten.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The sad renaissance of the press release

Is the press release dead? Headlines are supposed to drag you into the story and this one did it for me. After all, I have handled tens of thousands of the little beauties over the years, most of the time receiving them, but more recently sometimes writing them as my job description evolved.

The head appeared over an article from an organisation calling itself the contentgroup (all one word and no capital), written by its Chief Executive, former Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist David Pembroke.

His theme is that the press release is far from dead and, in fact, has an even bigger role to play as traditional media struggles to adapt to an increasingly online world.

He quotes American entrepreneur Ryan Holiday who says editors and bloggers are increasingly in love with press releases because it does every part of their job for them.

“The material is already written; the angle laid out; the subject newsworthy, and since it comes from an official newswire, they can blame someone else if the story turns out to be wrong,” says Holiday, who has written a book called Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.

“Media releases make the job of the journalist easier. You are helping them find stories, quotes and material. In marketing terms you are ‘optimising the top of the funnel’."

Sadly, Holiday’s words hold a great deal of truth. A media release has a better chance of appearing verbatim on newspapers’ websites or in print these days than at any other time in history. The reason is not lazy journalism, but journalists harassed and desperate as they do the job that was once done by three or four workers.

The situation is particularly acute in the United Kingdom where literally thousands of reporters, sub-editors and photographers have been laid off in the past five years. The result has been a depressing race to the bottom as remaining workers struggle to fill pages while unable to even think of leaving their desks to engage in traditional news-gathering.

The situation has been recognised by the Pew Research Centre Project for Excellence in Journalism, whose director, Tom Rosenstiel, says the balance of power is shifting from those who collect and process the news to those who make it.

“What we’ve seen in some of our studies is that the press release that’s authored by the news-making agency, the government agency or whoever, is often adapted very briefly, or very hastily and re-posted by a news organisation as a kind of quick story,” Rosenstiel says.

And of course with the newsmakers in charge of the news, the public gets to hear only what they want them to hear and the overworked journalists simply have to go along with it.

Half a century ago, when I began in this craft, I was told to treat the press release with distain. “Follow it up, check every fact, find your own quotes and get the angle that’s actually news, rather than the one they want us to use,” was a distillation of my instructions.

There was a time when experienced Western news people were sent to journalism schools in what was then the third world to show young journalists how to write. Now some of the most aggressive journalism is conducted in parts of Asia.

I cannot help a touch of nostalgia when I see the media chasing stories around Delhi these days. Sure it’s a bit like the Wild West at times, but so preferable to meekly accepting government and corporate propaganda at face value.