Hacks and flack jackets

This is an article by David Piggott.
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David Piggott at Westminster for the Maggie Nally Memorial Lecture

I have to admit I was pretty excited when I got suited and booted for the CIPR Maggie Nally Memorial Lecture.

Not only was this West Country boy in the Big Smoke, but I was also going to have a chance to listen to Richard Gizbert. I’d looked at some of his work in the past and had a feeling I wouldn’t be falling asleep…unlike in some of my university lectures.

Task one was getting into the House of Commons; not so much a task, as a chance to imagine yourself in an episode of Spooks.

As I was in my wheelchair I had to enter a couple of lifts, which I like to think were scanning me and assessing my threat level.

Pretty soon technology will be so advanced that scanners will be able to work out your sarcasm level by how wide your smile is and how much glint is in the eye – if you seem too sarcastic a political strategist or pollster will come down and question you, showing you various political pictures and slogans all containing the words “new and change”, “does this make you feel more or less cynical” to which I would say: “Why is he smiling, he’s in politics?”

I tried to smile while I was having my photograph taken but it was taken before I was ready so it looked as though a raindrop had fallen directly into my eye. A good look I’m sure you’ll agree.

After taking the scenic route with my chair I arrived at Committee Room 10 and was met with a very warm welcome by Eva Maclaine, one of the organisers, which straight away put me at ease. It was good to see the interaction between different people in the room. There was no sense of hierarchy, just old friends and new acquaintances coming together to listen and learn.

The introduction to the lecture was given by Mathew Francis, chair of the CIPR’s International Committee. He outlined the purpose and the principle behind the Maggie Nally lectures before handing over to the main man, Richard Gizbert of Al Jazeera.

Hacks versus flacks

After putting the audience at ease with a joke Richard began by touching on the subject of the interdependent relationship between PR and journalism by using an example of the famous nemesis  movie quote: “We’re not so very different you and I”. This in itself was interesting to hear as more often than not the narrative of hacks versus flacks still prevails over the narrative of co-operation.

Richard spoke about the launch of Al Jazeera English and how under the Bush doctrine Al Jazeera was known as the ‘bad guy’ and how difficult it was to get the project off the ground due to negative perceptions and a hostile reception from the US government.

Richard discussed the harsh realities faced by those working at Al Jazeera Arabic, such as the death and injury of two Al Jazeera journalists caused by a US missile. Whatever people may think about the state of the media, it cannot be denied that those reporting from conflict zones do a dangerous but worthwhile job.  Throughout the talk Richard was able to deliver insight and reasoning on why leaders behave in certain ways and how policy in North American is shaped.

Arab Spring

Before moving on to the Arab Spring and the role of social and traditional media, Richard highlighted the gap between peoples’ political awareness and awareness of media influence. He stated that, while people in North America had become more politically aware, they had not managed to transfer this awareness to the media whose power has been compared to that of armies and weapons.

From this Richard moved on to talk about the show that he presents, ‘Listening Post’, which seeks to report on the powerful institutions that make up the media. ‘Listening Post’ has received critical acclaim and is seen by many as required viewing.

Media scrutiny

Speaking about the lack of scrutiny that the media receives, he said: “We do know there’s a level of self-interest involved. I’m not saying that other societal institutions aren’t important but if you look at the role that the US media played in Iraq and you just ask yourself the question, when was the last time a school helped start a war?” This quote really resonated with me as all too often it is easy for those working in and with the media to get trapped in a bubble and not realise the consequences that actions can have.

Richard’s view on the role that social and traditional media played in the Arab Spring was also very interesting. It’s his belief that the uprisings were helped by a combination of both social and traditional media working together. Richard spoke about needing to work in partnership with people producing the information and its need to be contextualised and collated.

This did have me thinking about how and by whom that information is presented. It’s well known that a sound bite or a story can be taken out of context to fulfil a news agenda. This is why it is important that journalists like Richard Gizbert continue to be the norm and not the exception.

Party in parliament

After the talk I was able to meet many people including fellow PR students.  It is always good to meet your peers and have the chance to exchange ideas and learn about different courses, while trying not to make a bad joke.

During this period I had an opportunity to speak with Patrick Nally, son of Maggie Nally and a bit of a legend in sports marketing. Just from speaking to him for a few minutes I could tell he was full of ideas and that he knew how to execute them.

Dinner was held in Cholmondeley room which had a magnificent view of the Thames; again I got to talk to many people, all of them warm, humble and hospitable a far cry from the Malcolm Tucker PR type. I would certainly recommend that any PR student check out the CIPR.

The event was thought-provoking, insightful and interesting. As a student of PR I can often be cynical about the fourth estate. Hearing a highly trained, highly ethical journalist speak on his work has renewed my faith.


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