The media are not the enemy of free speech – but those that say they are might be

media

If you spend much time on social media, you will probably have noticed more and more the UK version of US politically motivated actors looking to damage the perception of “the media” or any stakeholder group that might have an opinion that does not converge with that of their own.

This has obviously this has been happening for some time. I’m not pretending to be some sort of sage spotting future trends. We saw how Trump used multiple owned channels to engage directly with his publics and then encourage sharing of content to control the narrative and gain traction by effectively bypassing the much of the traditional media whilst simultaneously looking to denigrate them so as to negate the effects of criticism.

You can see the same tactics used by the Corbynite left in the past few years. Bypass a largely hostile traditional media to focus on direct engagement, owned channels and using outriders on their social channels to create significant noise, including a lot of criticism of traditional media that sounded very like that leveled at the same media organisations by those a long way to the right of Momentum, Novara and the Canary.

Coming back to today (yesterday) in the UK, when you have actors as far apart as Frankie Boyle (https://twitter.com/frankieboyle/status/1254701518290399235) and Tim Montgomerie (https://twitter.com/montie/status/1254769786803765248) both biffing on about whether the media can be trusted, one could argue that the trolls have begun to win the war; the question of media bias / efficacy / fit for purpose is already well under way.

Spending too long trawling through social media feeds of various different political commentators and their public relations / affairs outriders, it doesn’t feel that they’ve started a debate about whether “the media is representative” because they care about objectivity. There is constant, clearly planned attack. They want to denigrate the media so that they can better “control the narrative” and persuade people to support their broad selection of causes. “Don’t listen to those out of touch metropolitan élite journalists. Listen to me instead. I understand you”.

There is a growing trend to avoid playing the ball and simply play the man. Take Guido Fawkes attack on the BBC tonight – https://twitter.com/MediaGuido/status/1255131746162507785. God knows I’ve had challenging engagements when dealing with the BBC and inherent bias which became even more apparent in private discussion with editorial staff. However there was also genuine attempts to engage with arguments and issues that they found unpleasant and I rarely felt personally judged. Unlike Guido who didn’t even both engaging with the argument or content of BBC Panorama program in a series of tweets. He’s running straight on the “you can’t believe what they say so don’t listen” argument.

It’s anecdotal but I’ve chatted to a couple of mates who are well and truly outside the media / politics bubble recently where they’ve repeated this standard rubric to a point where they sound like they’ve been groomed by extremists. “The media don’t know what they’re talking about” or “What right do they have to print that?”. The arguments are resonating outside of their immediate constituency.

So what are the media doing wrong – if anything? In a free society journos should be questioning, looking to better understand and therefore inform, educate and entertain their audience. This means that they will get things (honestly) wrong. Or they will publish legitimately argued opinion that will contradict what your tribe believes.

In general, good; publish and be damned. Unless it’s about my employer or client – for avoidance of doubt, this is a joke. I’d prefer this to “group think” of either ideological and / or state control. But those that wish to control all levels of communications and debate can’t stand it. They want to reach their audience directly; to control the emotional engagement with the news and therefore influence society’s decision making processes.

The constant criticism of “the media” has now reached a fever pitch. COVID has taken the safety catch of certain actors and they are in full on attack mode, stating that the media have “read the country wrong” or are “too negative”. The constant repetition is classic propaganda / comms / marketing theory. Take a simple phrase and repeat it constantly to create an impression, whether it’s objective or not. It is perhaps blackly humorous that that in this case it’s designed to discredit the audience society should rely on for objective commentary.

Of course “the media” aren’t blameless. The ultra competitive nature of the profession combined with governance and editorial systems that are manipulated by certain sorts of operators (some who you might of thought of as the goodies) can lead to surprising publication / broadcast decisions that a little while later, in the full light of day, might regretted. The system we have in place leaves media organisations and individual journalists open to a certain amount of manipulation by those that may look to align their interests with those of a newspaper or simply offer a scoop or titbit of information that meets the needs of the journo / news org and whomever provided the information. Or by those with expensive PR firms and legal advisors prepared to play chicken with relatively impoverished media organisations.

I also think that some journalists are overfond of the role of (appearing to) “speak the truth to power” – including their rather poorly educated understanding of how comms works in organisations beyond talking to them.

However, if one adds in the ongoing challenge of media p&l digital age and the average hack and media organisation is assailed on all sides. By those that wish to dismiss whatever they publish or broadcast because it doesn’t fit the narrative, by the balance sheet and by people like me trying to persuade them to look on my arguments favourably. Who’d be a journalist?

Some of the best and brightest one would hope. At least it means I can be informed and entertained when I consume news throughout the day.

So maybe we should all stand back and take a breath before we criticise “the media” again? Unless we want to live in a world where all government decisions are praised as “brave” and all corporate moves and to be welcomed as “innovative”

Who wants a newspaper that reads like a bloody press release?

Adversarial Broadcast Media turns me off

Is Newsnight and its peers too adversarial?

I just watched Kirsty Wark bark a fair amount at Ed Balls. Now I know that EB isn’t necessarily the most attractive character, and Newsnight isn’t there to allow party political broadcast, however the need to get one over on the politician meant that it just turned into a row, and not a particularly smart one.

Ms Wark looking to trip Balls meant there wasn’t a strategic line of questioning, just a selection of accusations about how “anti business Labour might be due to the stated views of a number of high profile commentators. At the same time, Balls was trying not to do his Gordon Ramsey impression, trying to remain calm, not shout and not be to patronising. He wasn’t entirely successful.

The thing is, I don’t think we the viewers learned much, because it swiftly turned into a playground row. Kirsty the inquisitor even did a Paxo and was like a dog with a bone asking the same question about corporation tax 5 times – but one that didn’t actually seem significant at the strategic level. She appeared to become focused on the interview as a battle, as though she believed the accusations that she was putting to Balls.

This isn’t an isolated incident. Whilst much of Newsnight is great, including Kirsty Wark, (who is one of the UK’s great broadcast journalists with broad and deep knowledge and a wide hinterland) the overly aggressive interview is now often standard in UK broadcast media. Whether it’s the hectoring on the Today programme in the morning; a smooth skewering on Channel 4 or being asked the same question 13 times on Newsnight, I’m finding myself drawn to change the channel – and I’m as much of a news / politics / cap markets junky as most PR people.

I’m not sure what the solution is – or even if there should be one. This is a personal view, and most PR people would tell me to grow up and enjoy the conflict and theatre. I can always go and read Lex, Foreign Policy or the Economist if I want more careful and sober (but still hard hitting) analysis.

This isn’t a PR thing, but a consumer judgement. I’ve had clients both on Newsnight and it’s peers and I’ve also advised clients to avoid it and done my best to talk to producers out of covering a story as it was actually a non event. I just watch it less than I used to because if I want to deal with insane argument, all I have to do is tell my son he can’t have something and stand back.

The 11th commandment, the trading floor and energy companies

I love this story.

torygraph

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/10223990/BP-blames-trainee-error-as-it-faces-29m-penalties-in-US-gas-market-fixing-case.html

Probably because it involves an awful lot that’s relevant to my current position, but also my wider career, and what it tells us about the inherent conflict between the mentality of the trading floor and the Integrated energy company.

Firstly the trading: As some of you might be aware, I started off as a kid running errands on trading floors in the City, and even got to do a bit of trading (treasury derivatives, forex etc) before it all became apparent that it wasn’t for me as I wasn’t particularly (eg at all) suited and finally I would always be my Dad’s son. I love being my Dad’s son, he’s taught me a lot of important stuff and is probably my best mate, but Johan Cruyff and Jo Frazier’s kids probably both wished they hadn’t tried the same thing that made their surname famous. At least I didn’t get knocked out.

Then there’s the energy side. My MA might as well have been called “how to invade sovereign states and steal their resources”. I have spent the last 13 years advising energy and resources companies on their communications, with particular focus to capital markets exposure. This is the life I’ve chosen and I’ve loved it, even the weeks in Almaty, Eastern Europe and bits of Africa drinking myself towards an early grave; the late nights and early starts, trying not to fall over my own feet at London Bridge. There’s always something going on, which always has 5 different aspects to it. Oil, money, geopolitics, human weakness. So that’s 4. Sue me

As with one of my favourite literary characters, “Where love and need are one, and the work is play for mortal stakes etc” (sorry)

Consider the absolute joy with Emily Gosden has written the story and a number of energy journos were discussing it on twitter yesterday. It’s just a great story; globally famous energy firm getting screwed by a regulator because of a gobby junior trader. It’s almost cinematic; exposing the dangerous fault line between highly regulated industries that are also household names, and the cult of the trading floor, where speculative and risky behaviour is still (correctly) rewarded with cart loads of wedge.

Hang on, hasn’t Michael Douglas and the Sheens already done this?

Anyway, where was I?

The way I see it, there’s a few things to consider here. I am constantly joking about the 11th Commandment. “Don’t get caught”. In my experience it’s incredible how much corporate life is governed by the 11th commandment. Potential conflicts, breaches of regulation, deliberate obfuscation, out right lies, working for the devil. All of them appear to be acceptable if you can get away with it.

The great unwritten rule, but god forbid if you get caught. Like jumping at 20,000 ft without a parachute, or going down in the Barents in January, you are, entirely justifiably, screwed.

Some of the most successful traders I’ve known or heard about sailed very close to the wind; went right up to the line. Some of them probably went up to the line, laughed out loud and kept on going, and gave the appearance of being carefree. However, I bet they only went so far. There will always have been an escape route, because they were great traders and could immediately and instinctively manage risk.

But plans are only as good as the weakest link and in this situation there are two. Whilst BP maintain their innocence and this has to be accepted until the legal process is completed, the first problem is that BP had already copped to something similar before re propane prices The second is that enthusiastic young traders need VERY careful managing and need to understand where not only they but their institution fits in the wider corporate animal.

Trading floors are all about risk incentivisation. This is great if you’re a boutique, or part of a wider organisation where remuneration is directly linked to personal / departmental p&l, but what happens if your job is primarily to hedge against and manage the exposure of a wider corporate beast that has a very different mentality to that of the floor?

So we come to the nub of the issue. How do IOCs maintain top quality trading floors, with top quality traders, but also manage to maintain their essential corporate conservatism?

Whilst many IOCs give the impression of being prepared to take significant risks on multi billion investment programmes in funky parts of the world, they are actually instinctively conservative, with procedures for everything. They wait for wildcats to go and find the oil, then buy them out, whereby massive capital and operational punch will turn the oil into millions of dollars of income. Procedures are in place across the entire organisation for a few reasons.

The first is physical safety. Piper and Maccondo demonstrates what happens if a firm is anything less than rigorous in its safety procedures. Conservative is vital in such a potentially hazardous environment.

The second is about reputation and its maintenance, about “Permission to Operate”. In an independent firm, decisions are taken quickly, statements are drafted, operations are managed, because the timetable to monetization is so short. It’s all about quick growth to pay off investors and onto the next project. For the big boys however, it’s about maintaining the ability to drive income from a supergiant fields for decades. This means everything takes a long time to make sure they’ve got things right. I’ve waited a month for one of the big boys to agree wording on a press release on a deal that was an open secret in the industry, for fear of getting it wrong.

So how do the big boys manage this conflict? Firstly there’s remuneration. It’s one of the few jobs that is applicable with investment banking; largely because you can easily move from Chevron to Deutsche, doing the same job. Cash is, as we all know, a flexible tool.

Then there’s the process of indoctrination, or as my colleagues call it, “internal communications”. Trading floors are pummelled with information about their place in the world and that place is to make lots of money and not to come to anyone’s attention.

That’s right; the big energy firms follow the 11th commandment as well. Trading arms are balance sheet significant to all the major IOCs, but how often do the general public hear about them? How often are they in front of investors? Sometimes it’s just easier to pull a veil over an issue.

And that’s why we won’t hear about much of what goes on at BP IST or Shell Trading or the others until another actor gets involved like a regulator. Or there’s another Enron. Or an independent trader that is a counterparty to the big energy brands dumps toxic waste off West Africa. Obviously traders want to make sure that their positions are confidential for commercial purposes, but I reckon it’s got nothing to do with them.

Just because the job is vital to the commercial health of a company, it doesn’t mean that it should ever get the light of day. “Sit in the corner, shut up and make us and yourself a lot of money” is often the SOP.

This lack of transparency is the final ingredient in the story. There’s something secretive and mysterious about trading floors for those that haven’t worked on them. It adds to the joy of journalists like Emily that get a great story.

But for BP, Shell, Total etc, the story is simple; “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for, move along.”

IOC head of comms, deputy head of comms with a trader just visible behind them

IOC head of comms, deputy head of comms with a trader just visible behind them