Nick Jones
Journalists are addicted to the blame game. The priority is to work out who is to blame and who should say “sorry”.  Personality-led stories attempting to hold public figures to account are the easiest to write. But journalists should be on their guard: political spin doctors and the public relations industry are showing ever greater sophistication in managing the personalisation of news and turning the “S” word to their clients’ advantage.  In a speech to the annual conference of the Institute of Communication Ethics (Coventry University, 28.10.2009) , Nicholas Jones explored the ethics of saying “sorry” and the part of apologies play in the   hyper-personalisation of political coverage. A scene from David Hare’s latest production at the National Theatre – The Power of Yes – provides a graphic illustration of the dumbing down inflicted by the hyper-personalisation of political coverage.  Bankers – and ultimately journalists -- are Hare’s target.  He describes the moment Sir Fred Goodwin, the disgraced boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland, is being coached before his appearance in front of the Treasury Select Committee at the House of Commons. At first Sir Fred refuses point blank to offer -- let alone rehearse -- an apology.  His aides are insistent: he must use the “S” word. They say “sorry” is the only word that will satisfy the news media.   And surprise, surprise, one newspaper marking the bank bosses on the sincerity of their apologies, judges Sir Fred’s as having been the most convincing.  The delicious irony of Hare’s script line is left hanging in the air…but it gives dramatic effect to the empty rhetoric of saying sorry. 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.  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.In fact rushing out a rehearsed apology – including the “S” word – is usually nothing more than a meaningless cosmetic.  By giving so much emphasis to such story lines we play into the hands of spin doctors and the public relations industry and as a result they find it easier to mislead the media, a process which invariably ends up giving another push to the downward spiral of highly-personalised news coverage.  Journalists end up being deflected -- just as we were for example in the boom years -- and as we are again now in the midst of a recession.  Instead of investigating what is really happening in the financial markets we are still consumed by stories about apologies and demands for paying back bonuses.  A media-inspired witch hunt to force a politician to say sorry, or to get a banker to give back some of his money, is win, win for the national press.  Personality-led stories are ideal for the news channels of 24/7, far simpler to update for hourly bulletins than complex facts and figures.  When Sir Fred Goodwin was being hounded over his bonus--  or the when the Sun was collecting signatures for its petition calling for the sacking of Sharon Shoesmith,  Harringey’s director of children’s services -- the coverage was far more intense and all-embracing than would have been the case in either Europe or America.  The circulation and readership of newspapers here far exceeds that in the States or across the Channel. Our newspapers are highly-politicised; they mount popular, often highly-personalised campaigns which tend to create news and drive forward the agenda.  These manufactured story lines, the accompanying headlines and the highly-orchestrated comment pieces feed through into radio and television, fuelling debates on radio phone-ins and in online discussion on social networking sites.   Earlier this year, despite a sustained media campaign – egged on by the Conservatives -- Gordon Brown stubbornly refused to say “sorry” for the failings of the Financial Services Authority and the tripartite regulatory regime which he introduced as Chancellor.  In the end the Prime Minister did grudgingly accept that he took “full responsibility” for the banking failures which led to the recession.  (Guardian, 17.3.2009). Our friend Sir Fred -- dubbed a “Scumbag Millionaire” by the Sun newspaper (11.2.2009) – joined three other disgraced bankers before the Treasury Select Committee in admitting that they had misjudged the financial crisis.  David Hare did not explore the precise construction of Sir Fred’s apology but the words he used are highly revealing.  Sir Fred said he was “profoundly and unreservedly sorry for the distress caused” both to customers and to the public by the plight of the Royal Bank of Scotland. 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”.  What is so amazing about the insincerity of that apology is that it mirrors almost precisely the form of words adopted by Tony Blair in 1997, six months after he became Prime Minister, when he was in the firing line for accepting a £1 million donation from the Formula One motor racing boss Bernie Ecclestone.  Blair also used the “S” word but just like Sir Fred, the Prime Minister’s apology was a sleight of hand. He did not say he was “sorry” for taking the £1 million. In fact Blair made a habit of accepting donations from wealthy benefactors, as revealed during the saga over “cash for peerages”, it was all so New Labour and so typical of the hyper-personalisation of political coverage in that most journalists accepted it.   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”. Blair’s apology worked – at least in the short term – thanks to the efforts of Alastair Campbell who after six months in Downing Street was still busily mastering his routines for his eventual role as puppet master for apologies.  Campbell understood how to take advantage of the herd mentality of journalists; he knew that given good presentation the media could be distracted from digging further if the story was presented as a test of Blair’s personality.  Journalists were briefed in advance that the Prime Minister would say “sorry” when interviewed by John Humphrys on the BBC’s Sunday lunchtime political programme On The Record (16.11.1997).  Campbell was convinced this would draw a line under a damaging controversy, put a stop to further damaging reports and allow the government to move on.  To prime the pump the build-up for this highly-charged moment Campbell trailed the story in the Sunday papers.  They loved it: “Blair goes on TV to say ‘I’m sorry’”. (Sunday Telegraph, 16.11.1997); “Blair: Sorry, we blundered” (Observer, 16.11.1997). So before the Prime Minister had even arrived for his live interview, his apology was the splash story in the Sunday papers and already dominating the news agenda.  All Blair had to do was deliver the “S” word and the journalists would be satisfied, the media could bask in the glory of a job well done.  It was a trick which Campbell pulled off time and again. 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.  Looking back on the Blair years we can see how the routine of saying “sorry” was taken even further and subsequently used to protect the Prime Minister.  If a damaging story was running out of control, Campbell knew it was essential to try to close it down before Blair went to the House of Commons each Wednesday to answer Prime Minister’s questions.  Blair had to know that the crisis was over: that there had been an apology or resignation, which he could say was the end of the matter. That is why Tuesday became the day for saying “sorry” – so that Blair would have a clear run at the despatch box.   In 2001, when it was revealed that Jo Moore had sent out an email suggesting to government press officers that 9/11 was “a very good day” to “bury” bad news, she gave her “sincere” apology on Tuesday the 17th of October.  The following year in the early evening of Tuesday December the 10th Cherie Blair delivered her tearful apology for the mistakes she had made over the purchase of two flats in Bristol. “I am not Superwoman – I am sorry” was the front-page headline for The Times (11.12.2002). Indeed every national had the story as its splash that Wednesday morning – allowing Blair to move on if challenged in the House. My hit list of saying “sorry” is not complete without reference to the disgraced Welsh Secretary, Ron Davies. He was so anxious not to forget Campbell’s instruction to deliver the “S” word that he even scrawled “sorry” on his wrist as a visual reminder. ( Sun, 31.10.1998 ).   When we look back at the apologies of the Blair years we see that they were a device, a mechanism for defusing personality-led stories which had got out of control and had to be closed down. But the apologies didn’t result in a change in behaviour. Blair did not stop taking ill-considered donations from suspect businessmen; ministerial special advisers like Jo Moore went on abusing the rules that apply to temporary civil servants ; and Cherie Blair continued her buying spree, building up an impressive property portfolio.  As for journalists, I am afraid we are even more addicted than ever to the blame game.  The priority is always to work out who is to blame and who should say sorry. All too often journalists put that question at the top of the list when interviewing victims and aggrieved members of the public.  And the blame game is speeding up thanks to the internet, the blogosphere and social networking sites.  So great is the personalisation of news reporting – and so far reaching is the process of seeking accountability – that politicians or public servants who become the target of a media fire fight are even more vulnerable than before if they cannot find a way out, execute a swift U turn or perhaps say sorry.  The Baby P case illustrates the frightening reality of what can happen once a potential victim is in the media’s sights. What initially fuelled the Sun’s campaign for the sacking of Sharon Shoesmith was her refusal to apologise. Her dismissal without compensation was a foregone conclusion once the Sun handed in its petition with 1.4 million signatures. (Sun, 9.12.2008). We could sense the raw power of a tabloid witch hunt. Sir Fred isn’t out of the woods either: the Sun’s headline “Scumbag Millionaires” lives on in pub talks and graffiti. (Sun, 11.2.2009).  The trick of using the “S” word to put a stop to damaging headlines is one explanation for Blair being tagged “Teflon Tony” during his years in Downing Street and by contrast we have seen how Gordon Brown – without a spin master equal to Alastair Campbell – struggles to come terms with the demands of personality-led reporting.  Brown never lets up in trying keep pace with the news media. Statements, interviews, newspaper articles, podcasts and the like cascade out of Downing Street but his personal image remains dire.  It reminds me of his earliest day as a front bencher, under the late John Smith, when Labour Party press officer despaired of ever keeping pace with Brown’s flood of releases. He seems have forgotten now that an interview with the Prime Minister should be an  event in itself.  Brown does so many hits on so many channels and podcasts that he dilutes and devalues himself and sadly cannot even be himself.    Earlier in the month, when he appeared on the parents’ networking site Mumsnet to answer questions he could not even tell the mums what biscuit he likes.  However much we may dislike it, the personalisation of news is here to stay and Brown does have a problem coming to terms with it. Shirley Williams says the Prime Minister has an “inability to communicate and an extraordinary inability to feel what the public mood is”.    The late Mo Mowlam put it more even forcibly: “Gordon seems incapable of having an emotional relationship with the country”.  I am struck by how much easier it seems for David Cameron. By comparison, his interaction with the public via media seems effortless and far more engaging. He is sure-footed in relating to journalists, answering their questions and in promoting himself. For example he demonstrated a refreshing degree of openness with regard to the early life and death of his disabled son Ivan who suffered from cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy. Back in 2004 when he started campaigning on behalf of disabled children  –  that was the year before he stood for the party leadership – Cameron allowed photographers to take shots of himself, Samantha, Ivan and their daughter Nancy.  He was quite relaxed about it, insisting that the public had a every right to see politicians in the setting of their homes and family life. Cameron’s attitude contrasts sharply with that of Gordon Brown. He insists his children should not be filmed or photographed by the media.  Tony and Cherie Blair paraded their children for party political purposes but otherwise took great care to protect their privacy.  It might seem insignificant example but I think it shows that David Cameron and the next generation of politicians will allow a greater degree of media access than say the Browns or the Blairs.  So 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. Oh, and by the way, the Camerons have now hired their own photographer who will in future take their personal and family photographs.  He will – according to the blurb – supply “behind the scenes images of the Tory leader to the news media as he fights to win power”.  David and Samantha are simply following the example that has been set by countless celebrities who have found ways to manage the personalisation of the news coverage they attract.  Cameron has taken a leaf out of Barack Obama’s guide on media management: the White House distributes images free of charge of the President and his family.   Such is the intensity of the competition for exclusive stories and photographs, for access and newsy images that most media outlets here in the UK – as in the United States -- will simply end up being willing accomplices.END