“We have to recognise that the blame game is something that is damaging journalism,” said the former BBC political correspondent Nicholas Jones, at the Institute of Communication Ethics (ICE) annual conference last week.
The demand for public apologies and the blame game is leading to a rise in the ‘cosmetic’ sorry and other empty rhetoric, Jones, who sits on the national council of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and writes on media affairs for the Free Press and the website Spinwatch.
“The herd mentality of journalists, and the ease with which the news media can be diverted by the quick fix of trying to find a scapegoat, are largely to blame for fuelling the ‘sorry’ phenomenon.”
Citing Sir Fred Goodwin’s public ‘apology’ over the Royal Bank of Scotland catastrophe, and Blair’s apology over the ‘presentation’ of the Bernie Ecclestone affair, Nicholas Jones demonstrated how the media’s demand for reparations has made them susceptible to spin.
“Sir Fred did not say ‘sorry’ for getting it wrong, far from it. He wasn’t going to take the blame. At no time, he said, did anyone anticipate the “scale or speed” of the slow down, so ‘globally it has caught everyone out’.”
Using the Bernie Ecclestone affair as an example, Jones suggested New Labour tactics were designed to manage the media’s lust for ‘sorry,’ despite the sentiment being negated by the context in which it is used.
“What Blair actually apologised for with regard to Bernie Ecclestone was that he wanted to say ‘sorry’ for the way the whole affair had been managed; he was apologising for the way it had been presented to party members. “It should not have come out in dribs and drabs … I apologise for the way this was handled … I am sorry about this issue … I think most people who have dealt with me think I am a pretty straight sort of guy.””
Media frenzy which is often sparked by controversy and an apology regardless of what it refers to, is part of the control mechanism:
“The first step is to excite the pack and then to massage the ego of the journalists by encouraging them to believe that it is their efforts which have helped secure an apology for the public.”
According to Jones, political spin deters good journalism: ‘Given good presentation the media could be stopped from digging further’.
In his paper – available in full on his website – Jones suggested that personality-led stories attempting to hold public figures to account are often the easiest to write:
“The hue and cry to get an apology can be entertaining, it can last for days, but all too often the net result is that journalists are at even greater risk of being manipulated. Sadly we have become addicted to the idea that obtaining an apology from shamed politicians or public figures represents a victory for the public, some sort of justification for journalistic effort.”
And it’s here to stay, Jones concluded:
“I don’t think we can turn the clock back: the hyper-personalisation of news is here to stay. But what I think we will see is even greater sophistication on the part of political spin doctors and public relations industry to try to manage the personalisation of news and turn it to their clients’ advantage. The insincerity of saying sorry is just the start of it.”
Additional reporting: Judith Townend