Come in Spinner: PR and the loss of civility

Are the PR industry and the media to blame for the loss of civility in public life?

Recently, taping a discussion for students, Deakin University’s Steve Mackey threw the question at me. We were talking about a new book on lobbying in Australia to which we had both contributed and, in which Steve had discussed rhetoric and civility and their roles in society. Clearly, PR people do craft grabs and one-liners which compete with similar efforts to get coverage in media outlets where the journalists themselves are already hyping stories in the hope of getting a run. There’s not much doubt that platoons of flaks, amply funded by vested interests, are converting US political discourse into a rancorous and intolerant stew of prejudice, ignorance and fantasy. Unfortunately the Republicans are probably better at it than the Democrats and for some years the Liberals in Australia have been doing to Labor here what the Republicans are doing to liberals there.

But is it the PR industry’s fault? PR industry critics argue that it is inherent in the nature of the industry and the interests it serves. However, some of the more outrageous PR claims are made by people working for those who are convinced that they are working for some overwhelming good, for instance some environmentalists and health thought police members. They can generally find media outlets which will uncritically publish their PR statements just as enthusiastically as the Australian Financial Review publishes equally dodgy claims about industrial relations and productivity.

The best I could come up with as an answer was that, responsibility for promoting or undermining civility was not be about industries but about individuals’ values plus some words about the benefits of a tolerant liberal education, hedged with the usual proviso of quoting George Steiner on gas ovens and culture.

…and then, in one of those coincidences that falsely convince us that things are more connected than they actually are a couple of great contributors to civility and  tolerance stepped aside and another sadly died. The three were Norman St. John-Stevas, Rowan Williams and Olympia Stowe. None of them were PR people are such but all had jobs – Tory Minister, Archbishop, US Senator – which were about promoting points of view.

St. John-Stevas (later The Lord St. John of Fawsley) has to be one of everyone’s favourite Tories. Gay, funny, a formidable parliamentary reformer (News Limited is one of those discovering how effective the parliamentary committee system he set up can be), journalist and the editor of the 15 volume collected works of Sir Walter Bagehot among many books, Lord St. John died earlier in March.

On his blog, Times Literary Supplement editor, Peter Stothard, paid tribute to Lord St. John, who Stothard first met while he was working as a political journalist at The Sunday Times. Stothard said: I “always listened carefully to what he said. My words with him were my first, and never equalled, experience of being told the opposite of what those words, if seen in print or overheard, would seem to mean. Norman was a master craftsman of being a source. I suppose that any examples of that should remain ……confidential still. When I later became editor of The Times he both congratulated and claimed a little credit for my advance. He claimed a little payback from time to time when there might be stories about art or architecture that might otherwise have been neglected. I was happy to oblige.” A lordly spinner, yes, but one who span for civility and culture.

A few days later one of the last moderate Republican Senators, Olympia Snowe, announced she wouldn’t stand for re-election unprepared to spend more time in the divisive and partisan extremism of US politics. Ironically, while the Tea Party Republicans are probably celebrating her departure such celebrations may be premature, her departure could well lead to her replacement by a liberal Democrat at a time when the Republicans were hoping to get a Senate majority after the November elections.

And then last week the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, retired and will return to academia to pursue his distinguished studies of theology and Dostoevsky. Although, it should be said, his book on the latter Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (Continuum, 2008) is as much about theology as anything else. Williams was, no doubt, sick of trying to moderate between the extremes (particularly in Africa, Australia and the US) within the Anglican Church. Williams was not as media-savvy as St.John-Stevas, nor probably as politically tough as Snowe with her Greek Spartan heritage, and was the victim of vicious misrepresentation by UK tabloids who found his intellectual and reflective style incomprehensible. But he was a voice for civility and for 10 years refused to compromise with the sound-bite society demonstrating that it is possible, if sometimes difficult and open to misrepresentation.

While getting elegiac about civility another question came my way during last week – would the recent Goldman Sachs publicity damage the company? – taking me to the post-civility society of investment banking. The Goldman Sachs whistle blower, Greg Smith, had resigned and said awful things about the company in the same week the El Paso-Kinder Morgan merger went ahead despite the controversy and legal cases around an alleged Goldman Sachs conflict of interest on the deal. My answer – even before New York Mayor Bloomberg rushing to the company’s defence and the background briefers starting to talk about the whistle-blowers’ ‘lowly’ status and dissatisfaction at his remuneration – was more influenced by the El Paso outcome and the evidence that not many investors necessarily want their investment bankers to be nice peoples.

So, my answer to this question was much more certain than the one about civility – a categorical no. Although there is one good thing about the situation – not even the PR industry can be blamed for the investment banking culture.