View from the Street: Who is watching?

@DavidGaffney78

I swore out loud last week when I heard a radio report describing The Washington Post’s latest scoop, exposing President Trump’s disclosure of classified information to Russian officials during a meeting at the White House.

My second thought, after that initial and profane exclamation of incredulity at the commander-in-chief’s latest indiscretion, was that this was a great thing; a victory for the kind of journalism Trump seeks to denigrate. It’s been my view since President Trump was elected that if anything other than his own stupidity would fatally undermine his presidency, it would be good, solid, investigative journalism.

You may think the first of those two factors will ultimately be the most telling, but without relentless probing by a strong, independent media, his power and position will not be held properly to account. The media is just one of “a series of checks” on the presidency – as described so eloquently by Fareed Zakaria – and it is one that Trump has attacked repeatedly during his short time in office.

All of which should remind us how fortunate we are to live in a country which values and gives licence to journalistic outlets that are expected and encouraged to seek out the truth and expose wrongdoing and hypocrisy wherever they lurk. Lest we take that for granted, consider for a moment the situation in Turkey, highlighted here by the tireless Mahir Zeynalov, where any and all dissenting voices are being silenced systematically by the state.

The biggest threat to our free press in the UK is not state suppression but the state of their balance sheets. As Roy Greenslade noted in The Guardian recently, the existential necessity to make cost savings has led to a gradual reduction in the number of experienced correspondents and a retreat from “face-to-face, eye-witness reporting” by many print titles and broadcast outlets.

These cuts hamper the media’s ability to do its job effectively. Good journalism takes time and costs money – which is rarely, if ever, recouped in the sales it generates – but has a value which is best measured not in financial returns but in its contribution to society and to truth.

You might argue that there’s more news content around today than there has ever been and that this ‘plurality’ is a boon, as we have a broader, more accessible range of sources from which we can all access information and ideas.

Maybe so, but the fewer skilled, trained journalists plying their trade in the UK, the less effective is our media’s collective ability to do its job to the high standards the industry’s best practitioners set themselves. Reporters on many titles simply don’t have the time or capacity to build and maintain a deep understanding of their brief, sector, or policy area anymore. And that has consequences for us all.

A senior lawyer recently bemoaned the lack of critical eyes watching the UK’s legal system, arguing that justice was “operating unseen and unheard” by most of us as a result.

It’s an incredibly important observation, and it is not only our courts that are operating largely unseen. Businesses, local governments, charities, public sector organisations – all of them are subject to less scrutiny and analysis with every round of redundancies in our local and national newspapers. Which is bad news not only for those journalists who fall victim to the cuts, but for all of us as consumers of news.

You may think this is a curious position for a public relations practitioner to take. Does it not follow that the fewer pesky hacks there are to ask difficult questions of clients, the easier our job becomes?

But just as governments and sports people favour strong opposition because it keeps them honest and operating at the top of their game, so organisations benefit from the notion that someone is always watching them, judging their actions, and holding them responsible. Indeed, it has been proven to change behaviour for the better.

Any individual or organisation with a reasonable social conscience can improve behaviour simply by imagining they are being watched, even when they’re not. It’s a decent rule by which to live. But it’s no substitute for the real thing. And for some in high office, all the prying eyes in the world will never be enough to change their ways.

David Gaffney is an Associate Partner at Charlotte Street Partners. After seven years at Beattie Media, he moved to RBS, where he worked on media relations for the group’s corporate banking division, before joining the group media team in early 2011. In late 2013, David became Head of Communications for the RBS spin-off challenger bank, Williams & Glyn. David joined Charlotte Street Partners in January 2015 and is also the director of Scotland’s Total Warrior franchise. He can be contacted at david.gaffney@charlottestpartners.co.uk