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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The BBC notices a different Arab lobby - but stops short

In a comment to my earlier story on the New York Times noticing the Arab lobby in America,  Jed G  notes a BBC piece about how Arab governments try to influence British journalism:

Over the past two months, as unrest spread across the Middle East, from Tunisia to Bahrain, many Western journalists were discreetly contacted by PR agencies acting for Arab leaders trying desperately to stem the flow of negative headlines.

The UK has become a global centre for this kind of international PR.

London is becoming a global hub for governments and world leaders - some of them with very questionable human rights records - who want to give their reputations in the west a bit of a facelift.

"I would imagine that all of those (countries) are represented in some way or another by a UK-based PR agency," Nick Allan told me in one of Soho's most exclusive clubs, as I showed him a list of Arab states that included Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Nick Allan spent 20 years working for Britain's Foreign Office. Now he is an independent PR consultant. Although he does not currently represent any foreign governments, he has in the past had to deal with what he calls "difficult regimes".

"The key is to change the narrative about that regime. So you can't change the fact that it's a dictatorship, there's only so much lipstick you can put on a dictator, but you can certainly try to change the narrative by pointing to as many positives as you can."

In practice, Mr Allan says, the work would include drafting and placing articles in newspapers, introducing journalists to members of the government in question, or organising trips to that country. Often the PR agency will also try to squash negative stories.

"Quite often what you're doing is just pure damage limitation. There's an article in the press that your client doesn't like, and they are screaming at you down the phone to 'close the story down', do whatever you can to make the story go away.

"A lot of PR agencies will employ media lawyers to do exactly this: to write to the editors, to put as much pressure as possible on the editor or the newspaper to not run the story."
The picture that is being painted is not pretty. We see that people are being paid by foreign governments to write their own articles in newspapers, presuambly without identifying their ties to their unsavory employers they are defending.

Even worse, we are seeing that these same PR agencies are hiring lawyers to threaten newspapers to pull stories that would make Arab dictators look bad.

In other words, they are doing everything they can to limit freedom of the press and transparency.

This is an important article, one that helps explain the incredible bias in UK journalism. But it is missing a key component - a component that makes one think that the problem is even worse than is being reported.

Why didn't the BBC reporter interview anyone from the BBC who has gotten pressured by these PR firms?

It is one thing to interview someone who (says that in the past he) applied pressure to tilt news stories towards his clients' viewpoints. But why not go into the BBC newsroom and find real reporters and editors and publishers who admit that they changed their stories in reaction to outside PR pressure?

This is a story about the media that doesn't bother to interview anyone from the media. Instead, it treats the PR firms as if they are the only ones who have to answer for their unethical behavior.

Certainly the reporter could have shielded the names of the journalists who succumbed to bribes, or threats, or more subtle forms of pressure. But that is the story, and the BBC completely missed the boat in framing it as only being about PR firms taking money from less than ideal clients.

The BBC can start by identifying its own offenders. And if they claim they have never given in to Arab pressure, let's hear examples of what failed.

The consumers of British news media deserve to know the truth about how the news is created and spun. By deflecting the argument, this story looks more like a whitewash of journalists than real journalism.