Come in Spinner: Background briefings Cui Bono?

One of the fascinating things about the modern media is how frequently the ‘facts’ reported about an event differ between media outlets while, simultaneously, the supposed meaning of the events are interpreted in remarkably similar ways.

While the former has a lot to do with the market segment a media outlet is pursuing and the reporting culture it fosters, the latter is mainly to do with the background briefings given anonymously to journalists and commentators who then recount in authoritative tones what they discern about an event.

This contrast between differing facts and common interpretation is exemplified by recent media analysis of what the release of Aung San Suu Kyi means and what her current position is.

It was generally reported that she would be released on the day predicted although everyone, understandably, expressed some reservations about whether the junta would actually keep its promise or not; but there were lots of differing reports on the election and who voted and didn’t and what was happening in various border regions. In a society as closed and opaque as Burma, any outsider’s view of events is unlikely to be fully-informed and the differences are probably inevitable.

Yet most of the analysis was remarkably similar – Aung San Suu Kyi may no longer be relevant; she needed to think carefully about her future strategy; she ought not marginalise herself by making excessive demands; she needed new, younger advisers; and, she needed to see the opportunities which the “small democratic opening” had created.

Such analysis was patronising at the very least – particularly of an intelligent and courageous woman who won a free election, risked her life and has provided decades of opposition to corruption and tyranny.

Why was the analysis so uniform in a situation in which much else was confusing and unknown? The simple reason is a special form of PR – that practised by diplomats, spooks and others in the employ of governments.

For some time Burma analysis has been filled with discussions of how sanctions are not working and that engagement is necessary now that the junta has privatised so much and transferred so much wealth to its members, and the Chinese, Thais and others are beginning to exploit Burma’s natural resources on a massive scale. Indeed, it is as if Aung San Suu Kyi is becoming a bit of an embarrassment to all those who are not yet benefiting but hope to do so.

Probably none of the journalists came to these conclusions independently. Diplomats, spooks, public officials would have been feeding them the key messages. We may have been shocked by CIA funding for Quadrant and other magazines around the world (well not really shocked) but we all know that spooks and dipsos act as PR people who place stories with journalists, sometimes in return for snippets of information. The key messages are agreed at governmental level and then the troops roll them out to those who tell us how the world works.

The Israeli government and its supporters around the world used to be brilliant at this although in recent years a few stubborn facts (as well as Al Jazeera and some religious nutters as objectionable as their fundamentalist Islamic counterparts) have made their job more difficult.

The problem is that journalists sometimes have a limited view of what PR is and who the PR people are. They assume some non-PR person – whether in government or the private sector –  giving them information is providing them with facts rather than PR and spin.

For instance, appearing on Janine Perrett’s Sky business program with Ian Verrender this week I mentioned that the business media coverage is generally more influenced by spin than political coverage and that much background briefing was done by CEOs and investment bankers rather than PR people. Ian, whose journalism I admire and enjoy reading, said he thought that was not really a problem and I suspect he doesn’t count it as PR. Indeed, he says he doesn’t talk to PR people and they don’t talk to him.

Most CEOs I’ve dealt with hate talking to the media. Loving it is often a good indication that you ought to sell shares in their company. Yet when CEOs and investment bankers give non-attributable briefings about their company, or some matter in which they are interested, are they just providing information or are they doing it to for some purpose from which they will derive a benefit? Ian Verrender has a track record which demonstrates that he could work out what was information and what was spin. But not all journalist and analysis/opinion commentators can.

A good example of how such briefings work is the creation of the myth that government intervention – in the form of governments forcing banks to lend to the disadvantaged – caused the GFC. While it’s clearly nonsense, Australians such as Alexander Downer and John Roskam have written articles seriously proposing the view. No doubt neither of them wrote what they did because of a briefing, but rather because the original background briefers in the US managed to reach some influential think tanks and journalists who then repeated it until it became – in certain circles – conventional wisdom spreading around the world with a speed and consistency the Cominterm would have loved to have achieved.

All in all the process – whether it’s about Burma, the GFC, the Palestinians, company outlooks or the investment climate – is identical. It’s not regarded as PR because it’s not done by PR people – just people using PR.

The quickest way to identify who might have placed a particular story or viewpoint in a media outlet – and why they are doing it – is simply to ask the old question cui bono?

And when it comes to something like Burma the answer is pretty easy – some government or governments who want their country to get in for a slice of the action the junta may leave for others and don’t want Aung San Suu Kyi to get in the way.