In My Opinion: Tristan Stewart-Robertson: Time for PR comments to come from named people?

WHO, in today’s world of openness and lack of privacy, deserves anonymity? Rape victims? Of course. Children who have been victims of crimes or are vulnerable witnesses? Again, of course. But PR officials?

When British journalism has become home to a near constant navel-gazing exercise on re-establishing trust, we may need to look far deeper at how we write and present ‘news’.

None of us can deny that the use of media releases is pervasive, nor are we likely to see any turn away from that anytime soon.

And when we need a reaction to news, we turn to our former colleagues-turned-spokesperson for assistance.

As a pesky foreigner working in Scotland – I’m Canadian – I continually look across at North American journalism, sometimes cringing at the writing and sometimes admiring the thoroughness.

Though the US media uses ‘a source close to the White House’ or to other domains of power, far too frequently, they generally reserve anonymity for vulnerable witnesses and the traditional ‘deep throats’ of Watergate stylings.

Many have argued that privacy is dead, but this isn’t only a question of privacy.

Last year’s Leveson Inquiry into Press standards wasn’t called just because a handful of reporters breached privacy: it was because too many didn’t adequately protect the people truly needing protecting.

In responding to that challenge, however, Lord Leveson and his Scottish successor, Lord McCluskey, inadvertently created the very reason that PR officials might finally need to lose their highly-cultured anonymity.

Lord McCluskey, said what some American journalism thinkers already know in practice: to be putting forward information (including media releases) is a de facto news provider, potentially a ‘significant one’ to come within the radar of a Leveson or ‘McLeveson’-type regulatory system.

McCluskey defines (paragaph 38) a ‘significant news publisher’ as: “(a) a person (other than a broadcaster) who publishes in the United Kingdom: a newspaper or magazine containing news-related material, or (b) a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine)”.

Media releases, even those hidden behind a veritable army of anonymous ‘spokespeople’, would be subject to regulation.

Think that’s a stretch? The more a media release, penned by a former hack, gets run in print or online nearly verbatim, the more the organisation behind that release inevitably becomes a ‘significant news publisher’.

Even if ‘McLeveson’ never sees the light of day, the public have every right to ask how we construct our stories and from what sources we glean our information. The new world of open and accountable journalism demands equally new and therefore different standards.

All emails by and from reporters are potentially subject to some form of publication by any contact, official or otherwise, who might see fit. That being the case, the reporter would almost certainly be exposed by name and organisation. Would PR officials recognise and accept that they are liable to the same degree of exposure?

PR officials are already all over social media and interact with both the public and the Press, frequently on a daily basis. They speak, in a very public way, as individuals, and almost always with their employer attached.

All that’s missing is their name attached as ‘a spokesperson for’ said employer.

That might be much too big a step for most. But if we have to debate trust and public interest, then we need to consider who, if anyone, really deserves anonymity in an increasingly open age.

Tristan Stewart-Robertson is the directing editor of news website and a freelance reporter operating as the W5 Press Agency. Tomorrow’s stated policy is to not provide anonymity to official spokespeople.