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Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Mail breaks its media protocol, with dire consequences

The Daily Mail’s hatchet job on Ralph Miliband has been the big political story this week and included a fascinating duel between Alastair Campbell and the newspaper's deputy editor Jon Steafel.

I thought I’d write a quick summary of the PR tactics in play in this interview as I always find it fascinating to see how newspaper journalists perform when dragged into a live studio to answer questions.

Now it’s unusual for a senior Fleet St editor to submit to a live TV interview about a contentious story. I understand that the Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, has a policy of not defending his newspaper’s output in public media fora.
But curiously, this week, the Mail made an exception and despatched Steafel to fight the Mail’s corner against Campbell.

If you haven’t seen it already, the interview is here:

Now superficially Steafel comes across well, he’s calm and eloquent, he’s not a swivel-eyed loon nor an addled old hack. Indeed his appearance was later applauded by Campbell, although I’d take that with a pinch of salt if I was Steafel.

But you do have to question what the Mail was hoping to achieve with this piece of media engagement, why did they choose to break with their policy of refusing to appear on media programs to defend their output? Was it ever a formal policy, or just a rule of thumb. You also have to wonder what, if any, preparation was done. You see it's difficult to discern what proactive message the Mail was hoping to send by taking part in this interrogation.

To my mind in this interview Staefel commits the error of continuing to think like a journalist. He does this without appearing to realise that:
  • He/his publication has lost control of the story; and / or
  • He/his publication has become the story.
The latter point is crucial and should have had implications for how the Mail dealt with the story.

Note to Steafel: if you’ve allowed yourself to be dragged from your newsroom for interrogation in a BBC studio then YOU have become the story.

Staefel allows the Newsnight interviewer to set the tone and politely responds to her framing of the issues. None of which puts the Mail in a particularly good light, it all amounts to a poor, defensive re-statement of the crap the Mail has already published. There’s nothing new here, Staefel stakes no new ground for the Mail and offers merely a defensive justification of the original offending piece, his responses amount to this:
  • We examined Ralph Miliband’s views;
  • His views are wrong, they are anti-British;
  • Ralph Miliband was a Marxist, Marxists are responsible for thousands of deaths, this means he was dangerous / evil (in itself a vulgar and despicable argument);
  • Ralph MIliband hated Britain;
  • This is all fair comment;
But this isn’t credible.

If the Mail stood by its story, then why did it feel the need to break with its no-comment policy and agree to be interrogated on live TV? And once he did agree to appear on Newsnight why didn’t Staefel ‘spin’ such an unusual step?

Lines to take such as:
‘Look we recognize this story has caused a big stir… we don’t usually comment on these things… but here we are being accountable…. How many other newspaper editors would do this?...’

In addition, could the Mail have taken steps to acknowledge some of the problems with the story? Take the tasteless ‘grave Socialist’ picture for example. The newspaper had already removed this image from its website, in apparent recognition that it had committed an error of taste. Staefel could've deployed this as one of his key messages:

‘Look we are reasonable people… we do listen and when we get it wrong we put it right.’

Of course this is not the impression that comes out of the interview, instead one gets the impression of a newspaper forced to remove material against its will. These are just a few random thoughts, none of them trumping arguments.

The point is this: In any circumstances (whether inauspicious or not) if you opt to rip up your media engagement policy and go ahead with an interview, then you better have done some planning. You need to be clear why you’re breaking cover, you need to know your messages and show iron discipline in sticking to them.

The whole thing is pretty easy for Alistair Campbell. His strategy is to decapitate the Mail’s messaging (such as it is) by destroying the foundations of the Mail’s credibility at source. He barely engages with the content of the Mail’s story. Instead he attacks the Mail as an institution, smears its reputation, he cynically speculates about the cowardliness of the Mail’s editor (himself conspicuously absent from the Newsnight studio). In adopting this strategy he successfully puts into focus the Mail’s credibility. Furthermore, he gets traction for the idea that the Mail is a poisonous, corrupting and dangerous influence. He comprehensively undermines the Mail’s ability to get its message across.

Now this tactic is not new, and nor is it limited to spin doctoring.

Campbell was famously accused of adopting a similar strategy during the Iraq War by deflecting questions about the government’s conduct via a manufactured attack on the BBC. Although, perhaps not as clear cut as this week’s attack on the Mail, it’s worth re-watching Campbell’s now infamous intervention on Channel 4 News back in 2003.

But anyway, enough of this PR nonsense.

Could the Mail have handled itself better? Of course. Was it ever likely to? Probably not. I personally take great joy in covering up the Mail with copies of the Mirror (or if lucky, the Morning Star) whenever I see it in a shop. I also regularly admonish strangers for buying it.

Despite some good moments (it's
 role in the Stephen Lawrence case??) it's difficult to see any good in the Mail's relentlessly poisonous output. 

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