Lies, damned lies and the tabloid press

lies damned lies

The press, as in newspapers, have not done themselves a lot of favours in recent years.

The scandals around phone tapping, bribing police officers for confidential information and an uncanny ability to just tell blatant lies that they justify as part of the readership war games they have with their competition, has all played a part in not only damaging the reputation of newspapers, but has also hitting sales figures too.

Of course, the explosion of social media and the internet has had a huge impact on the ability for newspapers to sell their wares. But the wholly incompetent response of the industry to those challenges, to sensationalise, go negative or just make things up, has been totally inadequate and, in some cases, criminal.

An unhealthy interest in and scrutiny of celebrities has been another element of a tabloid newspaper offer that leaves potential readers simply asking ‘why bother’ when it comes to the purchasing of a daily paper.

I had hoped that the dragging through the courts of News of the World and Sun executives and the subsequent public outrage may have ushered in a new culture for an industry that seems as rotten as the alleged corrupt football officials, politicians or businessmen they regularly berate in their columns and feature pages.

However, with few exceptions, those prison sentences handed down to Andy Coulson and his mates appear to have been forgotten by the industry quicker than an X Factor winner.

Of course there are notable exceptions to this picture of doom and gloom. Marc Reeves at Trinity Mirror in Birmingham has adopted a successful and innovative approach to the on line agenda; the Liverpool Echo recently embarked upon a positive campaign to re-brand the paper through an ‘Ask Ali’ initiative, giving readers and ex readers the opportunity to comment on the future of the Echo’s content directly to editor Ali Machray. At a national level, the work of the Sunday Times Insight team has been crucial in exposing the misdeeds of FIFA officials.

However, all of this good work is totally undermined and undone when one of the leaders in the industry chooses to serialise accusations about the Prime Minister that range from tit bits that would not look out of place in a Monty Python sketch, through to more serious questions of judgement that have simply been lost in the barrage of rubbish the Daily Mail has published.

The fact that these accusations are being made by a bitter old Lord who has admitted his personal vendetta against David Cameron very publically, makes the Daily Mail’s decision to run these stories even more bizarre.

If the adage ‘no publicity is bad publicity’ was the policy that Mail executives were following with this one, then job done, as most folk are aware of their coverage and are talking about the Daily Mail. However, in doing so, the Mail has knocked several more nails into the newspaper industry coffin. Whatever happened to integrity, credibility, reputation and backing a story up? This trash should never have seen the light of day in The Daily Sport never mind a title that would consider itself a serious publication.

The Liverpool Echo

Liverpool Echo

The Echo is a Liverpool institution, so Downtown did not take lightly the decision to undertake a poll last week that asked if the local newspaper’s front page headlines had a damaging effect on the city’s reputation.

The vast majority of those who participated in our poll, around 300, believe that it does, and that in itself is cause for concern. You can view the results here.

The reason we undertook the poll in the first place came as a result of consistent complaints from our members during and outside of our events over the past six months, many expressing the view that the constant barrage of crime related front page news headlines was a cancer in the city that was sapping confidence within Liverpool’s indigenous community and potentially putting off potential inward investors.

Of course the Echo can legitimately point to the fact that our poll was taken by only a tiny percentage of people in comparison to its own very healthy readership. It may also argue that the poll was not as representative as, say, a MORI led focus group.

But I think that the gut instinct of Downtown’s members and wider network is a pretty decent reflection of what many in the private sector think, and so I have written to Echo Editor Alistair Machray and asked him if he will meet a few of us to discuss our concerns. I have also offered him the right of reply in TFI, which seems only fair.

As a business organisation that wants our city to continue to grow and progress, we recognise that a successful local newspaper is important. In this city we are fortunate that we have another great title, the Echo’s sister paper the Liverpool Post, and both media outlets not only offer valuable media services, but quality jobs and a significant contribution to the local economy.

Nonetheless, as a local newspaper, we believe that there is a responsibility to balance the need to sell newspapers with a duty of care to the city and its image. Many of the Echo’s front page headlines in recent times don’t reflect our modernised, regenerated, transformed city.

I argued in this blog (Does Bad news Sell?) that the Echo was out of step with the city’s new found confidence and a more upbeat Liverpool community. I still believe that to be the case.

The Echo is not the enemy though. Indeed if we were to ask the question, ‘does the Echo stick up for the city against outside knockers’ we’d have had an equally resounding YES vote. If we’d have asked if you trust the Echo, I think the result would have been positive. And in its campaigning work from ‘Stop the Rot’ to Hillsborough, the Echo deserves huge credit.

But it doesn’t get everything right, and the balance between reporting the good and the bad on its front pages feels to be out of kilter to us at the moment – and those who took our poll last week seem to agree.

I look forward to meeting Alistair to have a constructive conversation about the issue, and I’ll let you know how we get on.

Finally, to the guy from Trinity Mirror who phoned our PR agency last week and told them that Downtown should not expect be getting any coverage in the paper anytime soon, I’d simply say this – don’t shoot the messenger!