With the media world hyper-focused on the phone-hacking media scandals in the United Kingdom, we were interested in getting an inside perspective. Sara Pearson, a former journalist, is now a London-based partner at Spider PR, the UK affiliate for the Public Relations Global Network, our global consortium of independent public relations agencies. We asked her opinion of several aspects of this fast-moving scandal.
What’s the reaction of the average “man on the street” to the wave of hacking scandals?
Actual tabloid readers seem pretty indifferent to it, although many are cross at the loss of their favourite Sunday paper (euphemistically known as the ‘News of the Screws’)! The scandal is of much greater interest to non-tabloid consumers, who are intently following the story.
How about the mainstream media? How are they covering the news?
The mainstream media is between a rock and a hard place. Sooner or later, I think all will be caught up in the scandal. This is not confined just to News International; to a lesser or greater degree, every paper has crossed the line. So the coverage is widespread, but at times strangely focused. For example, The Daily Mail ran a piece with a thinly veiled reference to the sexuality of one of the News International editors and a key commentator at the BBC. As more and more get dragged down, I’ll bet they will take as many with them as possible
Are other newspapers in jeopardy? Could The Sun be next?
The recent news that Rupert Murdoch has withdrawn his bid for BSkyB is a far greater blow than the simple closure of an age-old tabloid. If I were advising him at this time, I would view News International as a body infected with gangrene; the only way forward is to keep hacking off the bad bits in the hope the damage does not engulf the totality. We all know that the real worry for Murdoch is the danger of the contagion starting to damage Fox.
We Americans have a hard time comprehending the breadth and influence of the British tabloids. In our country, tabloids like The National Enquirer are largely discounted as sources of legitimate news (although they have broken some major stories). Explain, please, Brits’ relationship with their tabloids: Are they taken seriously? Viewed more as a form of entertainment? Why do you think they flourish in your country?
It all goes back a long way. The tabloids did not begin life as communicators of salacious gossip; they were the respected messengers to the working classes, whereas the broadsheet papers were created for the intelligentsia. In the last 30 years, the slide into balance of stories between real news and, more often than not, make believe, particularly involving sex and nudity, has escalated. My understanding of U.S. media is that papers such as The National Enquirer have always been extreme.
Much is being made of the close ties between Britain’s press and the government as well as the press and the police — but journalists have always relied on inside sources. Is the situation more extreme in England?
I am sure it goes on everywhere, but there are tips and then there is criminality. As an ex-journalist, I am quite shocked at the routine nature of what is being revealed. I can see the temptation to listen in to certain conversations/messages, but I struggle to understand what they hoped to achieve by listening to the straightforward grief of families of bomb victims. And, of course, to tamper with the messages on a missing child’s phone, thus giving hope that she was still alive, is unforgivable. In the same way 30 years ago, people routinely did insider dealing in the city and it wasn’t until it came out in the open that the immorality struck home. This is what has happened here, and as consumers of news, we shall all have to become used to a much more diluted news feed in the future.
How does the presence and impact of the British tabloids affect the way you conduct media relations in your country?
The joke in London is that everyone hopes they have had their phone hacked, otherwise they are nobody! As public relations practitioners, we never like to see a media channel disappear, as it reduces our scope. Going forward, I don’t foresee any great changes, but I cannot predict where all this is going to end. Good sources have told me that the real story is not the phone hacking but email hacking, which is going to be far more damaging. So it is very much a wait-and-see situation.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The roots from this nest of snakes are going to be complex, long and deep. When you have senior police officers cautious to carry out their investigations for fear their own misdeeds will be revealed, the medical profession prepared to share private information for brown envelopes, MPs employing similar tactics to get information, cash that has gone unreported to the Inland Revenue, and expenses for tens of thousands of pounds being disguised to avoid corporate scrutiny – which could only be achieved at the highest level – it really is impossible to predict what the next few weeks will bring.