post box

Where were the gatekeepers?

The Post Office scandal has slain some recent myths about the UK: that the British public is more self-centred and less bothered about injustice than it used to be; and that powerful and well connected institutions and individuals can either lie their way, or buy their way, out of trouble.

Clearly, we live in a better country than the daily diet of negative news stories would suggest.

Quite rightly this tragedy is finally getting the attention it deserves. And as the inquiry runs its course no doubt there will be painful consequences for all parties involved in bad behaviour.

But I’m more interested in why it took so long to get to this point, given that the recent ITV drama was preceded by reporting in Private Eye, Computer Weekly, and even on the BBC Panorama programme.

I was recently struck by two headlines in trade magazines:

Honesty is non-negotiable - comms lessons from the Post Office Horizon scandal - PR Week

At least 8,000 journalism job cuts in UK and North America in 2023 - UK Press Gazette

The business of journalism

I suspect the Post Office story did not get the attention it deserved from the media, and particularly the influential tabloid press, because of resources. It was a ‘messy’ business story where the individuals wronged were perceived to be of little ‘public interest’ and had no organised PR lobby of their own. On the other side sat a powerful organisation determined to conceal the truth and no doubt lobbied hard to divert media interest.

This wouldn’t have been too hard. As I know well from my own time with CNBC, as a country we have a peculiar aversion to corporate stories even though most of us work for one! Editors disinterested in business news would have struggled to give it more than a niche spot on the business pages.

Unfortunately, I don’t see this picture changing. Tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs in the last two decades. Pay across the industry is low, the hours are long, and the prospects for promotion are mediocre. Not really ideal for supporting long, complicated, investigations involving a determined adversary. The citizen journalists, bloggers, and digital platforms seen as modern rivals to the traditional media didn’t do a better job either.

So if the media isn’t acting as gatekeeper this puts the onus back on the PR industry to acknowledge its own responsibility for crafting an honest message.

As all the best PR professionals I’ve met know, there is a huge difference between presenting your story in its best light, and covering up the truth. This is even more important in the middle of a crisis. But is the industry ready to help man the barricades? I fear without its help other scandals may slip by unchallenged.

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