There is a phrase attributed to, among others, Harold Evans when he was editor of The Sunday Times, which was advice given to his reporters: “Always ask yourself, when interviewing a politician, why is this bastard lying to me?” It’s been denounced as cynical, but it’s from a more innocent age. It was self-servingly innocent to assume that “lying” is a one-sided phenomenon. Today, advice by any government communications adviser to ministers, MPs, civil servants and political aides would be a variation on the Evans advice: “Always ask yourself, when being interviewed by a journalist, how will this bastard distort what I’m saying?”

Indeed, some variant of that is what communications advisers do tell their political clients. Everyone has an angle; no one is innocent; truth is a function of plausibility. No one in politics or the upper reaches of public life - so goes a ritual complaint - thinks out loud any more. Are you kidding? Did you see what happened to Larry Summers, president of Harvard, when he thought out loud? He became the soon-to-be-ex-president of Harvard. Care in presentation is now seen by savvy people in public life as the way you achieve your goals. Thinking out loud, or speaking frankly, is seen as an indulgent luxury.

This, then, is one good reason for modern public relations: it enables decision-makers to make decisions without being distracted by having frank conversations in the public sphere. Hypocrisy becomes the price executive authority pays to political correctness; the payment is made by public relations.

There’s a second large function of public relations, and that is to promote celebrity. Celebrity has been the great “discovery” of the past two decades. It’s existed for millennia, of course, in different forms - read Leo Braudy’s The Frenzy of Renown, published two decades ago - but it’s only with the rise of the modern tabloid and the celebrity magazines that the sheer richness of the seam has been revealed, and the vast ancillary industries that can be created from it, have been fully understood.

Celebrity has ever depended on fame, often on wealth, sometimes on beauty, and more recently, public relations has added goodness. Look at the cover of the latest issue of Vanity Fair, on which the film stars George Clooney and Julia Roberts combine with the former US vice president Al Gore to endorse the goal of saving the world from destruction. The linking of fame with the avoidance of annihilation is a terrific idea, both for humanity and the box office. Thus do morality and moolah combine, perhaps for the good of us all. If Julia Roberts looking moody can shift you from a four-litre 4x4 to a bicycle, here’s to moody.

Public relations is, finally, about truth - which is where we have to talk about lying, or at any rate spin. All institutions have spun themselves. Some with colossal energy and great success - the Catholic Church would be one such. Governments have done so with less success, in part because they have faced greater competition than the Catholic Church (at least in its pre-Reformation period) and also because they claim they create earthly as against eternal joy, a claim easier to disprove. Most individuals spin themselves - representing themselves as attractive, intelligent, diligent and trustworthy, especially at critical times such as job interviews or seduction opportunities. Spinning would seem to be a necessary attribute of intelligent humanity. And since humans are intelligent, they don’t believe institutions, political parties and other individuals - fully. If they do they are usually disappointed - even if the institution, party or individual is telling the truth. It is a definition of maturity to know where trust should end and scepticism begin, and how both can co-exist even, perhaps especially, with people you respect, or love.

The way in which most of the Anglo-Saxon states get at the truth under the law is by advocacy of particular and often opposing cases. Two views are put, with passion and eloquence, by barristers. Public relations people are secular barristers. Journalists are the secular juries. They are at least as imperfect in that function as PRs are in the advocacy one, but they are what we have. A lot depends on two things: first, on the media’s willingness to consider the cases made; and second, their scepticism about the cases made, and their ability to test them against counter claims, and to moderate them with other information.

In the past month, a small controversy erupted about a company called Editorial Intelligence, created by the public relations entrepreneur Julia Hobsbawm with the intention of bringing together PRs and journalists - in part to make a business through the first paying to seek to influence the latter; in part to break down the barriers between the two branches of the profession. It was denounced by some commentators as a conflict of interests.

I was one of several journalists who went on the board. I thought and think it was the right thing to do. Public relations and journalism do not inhabit separate worlds; in particular, the relationship between them is not that of sleazy liars seeking to seduce seekers after truth. Truth does not reside on one side only. Standards are not the monopoly of one and unknown to the other. Journalism cannot understand itself unless it understands what public relations has done to it; how murky and grubby the relationship can become, with the connivance of both, and how the relationship might work to the benefit of citizens who should be told something like the truth. It is a self-regarding conceit of journalism that we are the dogs for whom public relations furnishes the lamp posts. Understanding that relationship, and explaining its claims and its silences, is increasingly indispensable to an understanding of public life.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
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