Us Brits are an incredulous lot. We have a free press and an impartial public broadcaster yet our trust in the media is among the lowest in the world. Business, politics and religion have each suffered significant crises of confidence and even the saintly third sector has had its sheen dented by stories of mismanagement and dubious affiliations, of which the Kids Company closure is the most recent.
I worry that we are becoming doubters by default. By assuming that everything is to some extent spun, the line between embellishing reality and acts of outright deception becomes fluid. This week, for instance, the Press Association was forced to apologise for selling a story about an antiperspirant that featured the ‘real life’ testimony of a woman who happened to work for the PR agency employed by the sweat-busters. The story –broken by PR Week– focused on the embarrassment for the agency in being careless enough to get caught. The broader issue of PR’s impact of journalism has reached the point of simply being taken for granted. (According to our research, PR-originated stories take up 85% of mid-range and tabloid papers.)
The danger lies in the potential for serious fabrications to slip through the postmodern cynicism that pervades our relationship with national institutions. Ulrich Beck, the German sociologist who passed away earlier this year, likened what he saw as the creeping authoritarianism of recent times with that of a caterpillar undergoing a profound transformation in its cocoon yet with no idea of what is happening. We can intuit change but lack the tools -linguistic and conceptual- to really get to grips with this metamorphosis.
The release by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of a leaflet featuring case studies of fictional benefit claimants is the latest plunge into the grey zone between truth and fiction. The accounts of ‘Zac’ and ‘Sarah’, each with a mugshot of an actor doing their best impersonation of an ‘ordinary working person’, paint the silver lining to benefit sanctions. Naughty Sarah, for instance, didn’t complete her CV on time and received a friendly kick up the arse from IDS; now she’s on the path to success.
As with the PR bluff, our response to the DWP deception was: of course they would. With #fakeDWPstories trending our attention turned from interrogating the origin of this misuse of taxpayers’ money to a cynical joke. This is not the first time that DWP has put out phoney testimonies. Last year a tweet from the department’s press office sang the praises of universal credit- without citation or evidence of the policy’s efficacy. Yet, then as now, we assume that all government communication is a form of propaganda. (Bolstering this suspicion is the knowledge that the department’s director of communications is the former managing director of the Sun.) Should we not, rather, begin with the premise that press offices of government departments, bound by the civil service code, have a duty to put out impartial information? Our incredulousness may equip us with a healthy scepticism of Daily Mail headlines but when it comes to holding public-service information to account our lowered expectations are too forgiving.
This matters. The promise of a fiercely independent state communications service is increasingly coming at odds with the government’s commitment to re-prioritise resources across the public sector. In the last 5 years the civil service has lost half of its professional communicators and is scraping together savings of another billion in this parliament. The impact on the profession is to whittle down the status of government communicators.
Having lost many of their experienced staff the confidence of a junior press officer in standing up to a minister or special adviser is diminished. Perhaps as a consequence of needing to appease their paymasters much of the latest government communications plan-with its talk of a One Nation narrative and supporting the Northern Powerhouse- reads as if lifted from the Conservative Party’s manifesto.
Rather than holding up individual blunders to hashtag jeering we should ask serious questions about whether the information that is fed into our public sphere –from newswires to the civil service- has undergone the scrutiny needed to ensure that it is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.