"Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite....
In an era of information overload, the photograph..is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."
(Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others 2003)

13 May, 2010

The Importance of Being Earnest - Why Journalists Need to Have the Courage of their Convictions

The Nightmare on Downing Street last week – albeit relatively short-lived – sadly succeeded in pushing a far more serious crisis much further down the news agenda. As I write, oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, contaminating miles and miles of highly sensitive natural habitats and threatening the livelihoods of millions of fishermen and other human inhabitants of the US Gulf Coast states, all the way from Texas to Florida.

Given the absence to date of any real concrete developments, this environmental catastrophe is currently struggling to hold international attention. Attempts by British oil giant BP have so far proved to be woefully unsuccessful in plugging the leak which followed the 20th April explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig which claimed the lives of 11 BP workers.

I have been following the saga with more than my usual news junkie’s interest. It is not that I am a diehard environmentalist, although, of course, nobody likes to hear about dead dolphins. I have actually been charting the fortunes and the reputation of BP since I spent several months working on their corporate communications - a few years ago now.

There, I’ve said it. So much for all my juvenile ambitions of “shining a light into the world’s darkest corners”. It is true. My little freelance copy-writing agency once accepted a series of commissions from a local media agency whose key, actually sole, client was BP. The work was straightforward, the remuneration was nicely above market rates and, most importantly, my byline was not on any of it.

So, I spent a fair few months conducting phoners with BP operatives in places as far-flung as Azerbaijan, Indonesia and Mozambique. I interviewed many of the senior bods, including current chief exec Tony Hayward and COO Doug Suttles. Both, I must add, were cooperative, informative and utterly charming.

I also learned a lot – about how exactly you go about extracting tar from pesky tar sands, about how best to go about resettling entire villages, particularly if the elders are objecting; about how best to protect your precious pipeline from Islamic terrorists.

Yet finally, I had to jack it all in. Now I would love to be able to say that it was my conscience which made me relinquish this role – as the tiniest of cogs in the gargantuan BP PR machine. Sadly, the truth is more prosaic: I fell out with the intermediaries, the media agency, who were slack, disorganised and very tardy payers to boot.

Yet, I was relieved to give up polishing copy which I knew in my heart was 90 per cent promotional guff. I have no doubt that BP takes the welfare of its staff and other key CSR issues as seriously as the next global corporate behemoth. I just didn’t want to have a hand in crafting, editing or disseminating anything that smacked, even ever so slightly, of propaganda.

I don’t mean to come across as unnecessarily noble. In fact, I am pretty much with Dr Johnson in the “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money” camp. But for me, at least, there are limits, as I discovered during my short stint with BP.

Times is tough for journalists, particularly of the old school. Print and broadcast media are both broad-based pyramids and for every editor of the Economist, there are myriad lesser hacks, running around trying to make an honest buck – however, wherever and whenever we can.

So why have I been so surprised to see that so many of my former colleagues have jumped the wall into the PR and corporate communications world? At a drinks party a few years ago, I was struck dumb, as scores of my former Financial Times comrades handed over business cards, proclaiming their elevation to head of media relations - or some such - at one swanky bank after the other.

Yet maybe these were the smart guys? The ones who got to 35 and realised they had a mortgage and school fees to pay. So they wisely stopped mooning round the newsroom, stuck on NUJ wages, waiting in vain to be appointed editor. Instead they bravely took the plunge, surrended to the blandishments and accepted the twinkly shilling of the selfsame evil corporations they had spent the previous decade attempting to unnerve?

In one of those twists of serendipity, the BP head of media currently popping up all over the place to apologise for the Deepwater Horizon fiasco is none other than former FT editor, Andrew Gowers, who, I recall, sat at the far end of my second floor office in Bracken House, many many moons ago now.

I don’t envy Andrew or, indeed, any of my other mates who now spend long hours, burnishing brand reputations, sorting out corporate cock-ups and spinning finely crafted yarns to their erstwhile journo chums, who are, sadly, more credulous and indolent these days.

I’m just ever so slightly thankful that I have been able to dust down my languages and do a bit of translating. After all, the psycho spaniels’ vets bills (not to mention all of my other, if rather less terrifying, expenses) have got to be paid somehow…