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01 June 2018

Is the Evening Standard selling positive coverage by the pound?

This article was first published by PRWeek.

The allegation made by Open Democracy that the London Evening Standard is offering ‘money can’t buy’ coverage in exchange for financial support of their campaigns breaks every rule in the link between business, journalism and politics: it changes the game.

Sponsorship of campaigns is nothing new for many newspapers. Others offer ‘partnerships’ to extend networks, offer thought leadership opportunities and the benefit of being associated with their brand.

But none of these go so far as Open Democracy claims the Standard is going – positive news and comment.

There is usually a clear divide between native advertising, advertorials and journalistic content. In fact, there are rules in place as well.

But if the readers find it difficult to tell one from the other then it blurs the lines between what is news and what is, quite simply, propaganda for those paying the cash.

Native advertising has become more important in US politics in recent years and is used in public affairs campaigns as well.

Done well, they are clearly marked as paid-for content and can give journalists the ability to explore an issue relevant to the sponsor.

There have been discussions about the effectiveness of such content and the extent to which readers can tell the difference between it and ‘real news’. But it is an important part of the PR and public affairs toolkit.

However, Open Democracy claims the Standard is going beyond this.

The screenshots provided of the ‘London 2020’ scheme being offered by the Standard, appears at the very least to be open to (mis)interpretation.

If the offer of favourable coverage was not part of the deal, then this should have been made clear when it was being offered to the large corporates that are name-checked.

Such coverage could be especially valuable to, for instance, one of those named – Uber – as it is in a high profile battle with Transport for London over their licence to operate.

In these current difficult financial situations, all media outlets are looking at creative ways to secure their futures.

But there is a real danger of creating an ‘us and them’ culture where predominantly large corporates have the opportunity to secure favourable coverage.

Of course, others will point to the role that money plays in other areas of politics – think tank reports, All Party Groups, party donations etc.

But this really comes down to openness and transparency.

In these other areas, we can mostly see where the money has come from. If the Standard story is true then there is no similar transparency.

The reaction of the journalist community will be hugely important in this whole discussion. They will need to defend their own independence and they doubtless will.

The Standard has claimed that ‘editorial independence is and remains guaranteed in the contracts we sign’, so this could all just be a case of over-zealous sales teams.

However, it needs all those involved to be aware of the potential dangers, even those who might benefit from the blurring of the lines (as at least one corporate apparently
has).

As a famous campaign once said, ‘just say no’.

The sad reality, though, is that most readers won’t see details of this allegation and will keep reading their free daily intake on their way home from work, none the wiser at the forces that might be at play.

This article was first published by PRWeek

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