News of the World: victim and villain in the poisonous communication of public service

July 8, 2011

Most aspects of the News of the World’s demise have been picked over. But this is not, for all the head­lines, a scan­dal of journ­al­ism, or pro­pri­et­ors, or mer­gers and acquis­i­tions. Journ­al­ists are journ­al­ists, pro­pri­et­ors are busi­ness­men and deals are what they do. This is a scan­dal of pub­lic ser­vice and pub­lic inform­a­tion.

The most ser­i­ous aspect of this inquiry is what it says about the Brit­ish police ser­vice, its cul­ture of col­lu­sion and media “rela­tion­ship man­age­ment”.

Con­sider this line on Dick Fedorcio, the Met’s head of media rela­tions, bur­ied in a Nick Dav­ies report about attempts allegedly linked to the News of the World to intim­id­ate a seni­or police officer:

Scot­land Yard took no fur­ther action, appar­ently reflect­ing the desire of Fedorcio, who has had a close work­ing rela­tion­ship with Brooks, to avoid unne­ces­sary fric­tion with the News of the World.

Note the “close work­ing rela­tion­ship”.

This scan­dal of goes bey­ond people like the police, of course, to White­hall and its mar­ket­ing of pub­lic ser­vice.

The tox­ic inter­de­pend­en­cies which these “rela­tion­ships” foster could eas­ily have been bypassed at any time by gov­ern­ments brave or determ­ined enough to address the issue of how the pub­lic should be informed of what is done in its name and on its taxes. In the case of the Met — Bor­is John­son take note.

Instead gov­ern­ment, and loc­al gov­ern­ment, press offices have out­grown news­rooms. Com­mu­nic­a­tion is not on the basis of inform­a­tion but on ‘quid pro quos’. It is the cul­ture of embed, access and favour.

Let’s have a debate that goes bey­ond it, and that asks how we can put inform­a­tion pro­vi­sion and not spin con­trol at the heart of pub­lic ser­vice. Ed Miliband claims the pub­lic want a “frank, free and fear­less press”. Let the pub­lic sort the press out.

If politi­cians sor­ted out the way pub­lic bod­ies com­mu­nic­ated they might reduce the incent­ives for journ­al­ists to pay pub­lic ser­vants for inform­a­tion and the trad­ing in what is effect­ively “inside inform­a­tion”.

In the mean­time let us hear from the likes of Mr Fedorcio on his rela­tion­ships, and how he man­ages them. In the interests of pub­lic ser­vice.




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