How long before Leveson is kicked into the long grass?

November 29, 2012

LOL – now he knows what it means – must have been David Cameron’s reaction after reading Lord Leveson’s report on the culture, practice and ethics of the UK press. First came an audible sigh of relief over the vindication of his own reputation, which– despite inappropriate platonic text dalliance with La Brooks, now awaiting Her Majesty’s Pleasure on several criminal charges; oh, and former prime ministerial comms director Andy Coulson, let’s not forget him – received not a brickbat; then a guffaw over the exoneration of his health and former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, once he realised Leveson had whitewashed his role in the BSkyB/Murdoch saga at the expense of Hunt’s mendacious adviser, Adam Smith.

But the biggest laugh of all was surely reserved for Leveson’s keystone proposal: a statutory “underpinning” to press regulation. Over Cameron’s dead body. The introduction of any such measure, however camouflaged, would be tantamount to the Tory leader committing political suicide.

This “underpinning” business is the crux of the report, and the reason why it  – like the 7 inquests into the power of the press over the last 70 years preceding it – will be kicked into the long grass as soon as dignity allows.

Let’s be quite clear. Neither Leveson nor any of the 300 or so witnesses called before the inquiry demanded explicit intervention by the state or politicians in the conduct of British newspapers. The debate is a lot more nuanced than that and concerns not whether – that is a given on all sides – but how the current, flaccid, self-regulatory apparatus – known as the Press Complaints Commission – should be given independent coercive force.

The newspaper proprietors and editors want PCC-Plus – no surprise there. While there are shades of difference between the Hunt/Black proposals (both these peers are prominent members of the PCC) and the axis represented by The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Independent, the press is united on one vital prerequisite to reform. Under no circumstances should there be any statutory element – direct or indirect – in the new, toughened regulatory framework, whatever final form it takes.

And that’s just where Leveson disagrees with them. His point is that no form of self-regulation can be credibly independent when newspaper proprietors – whatever their pious assertions about newspaper ethics in public – continue to pull the strings behind the scenes. PCC-Plus might enable them to do this in a number of ways. Though serving editors would now be excluded from any committee of the Good and the Wise, proprietors could exercise covert influence over the selection of those sitting in regulatory judgement over them through financial manipulation. One of the prime principles of self-regulation is, after all, the inalienable right of the industry being regulated to pay for its own regulation. Lack of financial love might well be shown towards any candidate considered even mildly resistant to the idea of uncurbed press freedom, in the form of a threatened funding boycott.

And that’s just for starters. What about speedy redress of wrongs? What of punishment that actually fits the crime – as opposed to a self-administered slap on the wrist, or impractically long and expensive court cases which are beyond the means of most would-be litigants?

For these and other reasons, Leveson seems to believe that only the veiled threat of statutory intervention will give the regulator the independence, public respect and muscle that is so clearly required. Most members of the public, according to recent YouGov opinion poll, agree with him. The trouble is, most of Cameron’s party – the party in power – do not. They know that the backing of newspaper proprietors can be vital to a successful election result; and, once in power, it is very difficult to succeed in the face of an unremittingly hostile press. They also know that whatever any future statute book might say, newspapers are a law unto themselves. And, when it comes down to it, they will portray legislative curbs on their activities as incipient tyranny – and brush it aside accordingly. One thing that hasn’t changed in over 70 years is the truth of then prime minister Stanley Baldwin’s observation that newspaper proprietors enjoy “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.” He was referring to Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, whose newspapers had just forced him from office. There’s still a Viscount Rothermere, but nowadays the Beaverbrook clan has been displaced by the Murdoch mafia.

So, statutory “underpinning” – forget it. As for Ofcom being allowed to do the underpinning, don’t make me laugh out loud. Ofcom is out of the frying pan into the fire, in regulatory terms. We can be certain the appointment of its executives will be untouched by the influence of press barons for one very good reason: they are picked by a minister of the crown (currently culture secretary Maria Miller). That aside, what conceivable qualification do a group of career bureaucrats have in passing judgement on press freedom?

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Wonga scores own goal with social media subterfuge

November 21, 2012

Sally Bercow and Alan Davies  – who you may recall were a little too keen to blacken the name of Lord McAlpine – are not the only prominent twitterati caught abusing social media recently.

Wonga, the so-called payday loans company (that’s “usurer” to you and me, readers), has found itself at the wrong end of a Guardian exposé after systematically attempting to undermine the reputation of its chief  gadfly, anti-payday loans campaigner and Labour MP Stella Creasy. It did so by using a bogus Twitter account to suggest she was “mental”, “nuts” and a “self-serving egomaniac”.

The Twitter account in question was operated by one “Daniel Sargant” – an alias for what Wonga management, when put on the spot, characterised as a “junior employee” – evidently with the idea of suggesting that he or she was an unauthorised maverick. Bearing in mind the likely educational attainments of most junior employees at Wonga, this is a remarkably sophisticated one whose talents are obviously being wasted in the lower ranks of a payday loans company. A more compelling theory – voiced in The Guardian – is that “Daniel Sargant” is none other than Luke Manning, editor of Open Wonga, a website dedicated to educating consumers about the brand. Its inference is based on the fact that at least one of “Daniel’s” blog comments has the same internet protocol (IP) address as a computer used by Manning when, quite separately, he made a comment on another blog. (Manning, by the way, has denied any suggestion that “Daniel” is his alter ego.)

While it is entirely understandable that Wonga should wish to bury its best-known brand attribute of  “4,214% APR”, manipulating phoney Twitter accounts is probably not the way to do it. Not least because this kind of conduct cuts directly across the company’s credo of “Straight Talking Money.”

As does fiddling its Wikipedia entry to polish the corporate facts. And yet maybe, in a perverse sort of way, we should be grateful to Wonga for its underhand, if hamfisted, tactics. Had it not been for a determined attempt to erase any reference to its recent and controversial £25m (they say) sponsorship deal with Newcastle United, I would never have known that a survey of 1,000 fans had uncovered serious concerns about the deal, and the people behind it:

“… fans are disappointed that the club has not attracted a sponsor that enhances Newcastle United’s profile and is not the type of premium brand previously associated with the club.”

Not, admittedly, the sort of thing you want trumpeted about your brand.


Churchill bereft after speeding offences put Martin Clunes on his bike

November 20, 2012

It says something for Martin Clunes that we will miss him co-fronting those Churchill insurance commercials. The actor, goofier and more touchy-feely in real life than his dour Doc Martin persona suggests, nevertheless has a strong competitive streak which has proved his undoing. After a belting performance in a BMW 6 Series during a Top Gear episode long ago, the adrenaline rush has gone to his head – and he has now maxed out on speeding penalty points. Loss of his driving licence is clearly incompatible with a role as brand ambassador for a “safety-first” financial services company.

WCRS, the ad agency that has handled the Churchill account since almost time immemorial, tells us it has no more Clunes ads in the can. Whether, after a year, Clunes really had run his course as an ad property or the agency is simply trying to make a virtue of necessity with a face-saving statement, I have no idea. The fact remains that Clunes’ partnership with the near-monosyllabic animatronic bulldog mascot will prove a hard act to follow.

Branding devices that create instant recognition like the Churchill bulldog are marketing gold-dust. But they are also a cross to bear for the agency handling the account. Many years ago I well remember Tony Toller – creative director of Davidson Pearce, the agency then in charge of the notorious “Chimps” Brooke Bond PG Tips account – lamenting that he hadn’t gone into the ad business to become an animal trainer. The very simplicity of this type of branding device constrains creativity and makes evolution in new market conditions extremely difficult. The Andrex labrador puppy is another case in point.

Clunes indisputably opened a new chapter in the nodding dog saga. Not since John Prescott departed from the political stage had “Churchill” found such a natural human doppelgänger. The result of the pairing was a series of Wallace & Gromit-style antics that far transcended other, recent, comedic endorsements of the brand.

The question for WCRS – and indeed, for the bulldog himself – is: where to now?



Barclays bully should do his homework on Stonewall’s Bigot of the Year award

November 1, 2012

Tonight’s the night. The night, that is, when we finally discover who has won the much-uncoveted title of Bigot of the Year at the Stonewall annual awards.

Stonewall being a charity dedicated to promoting the civil rights of gays, lesbians and bisexuals, it requires little to imagine what kind of bigot might qualify for this category. Take any ante-diluvian churchman or off-guard Tory politician and you’re practically there as far as the longlist goes.

So far, so dull. But wait. This year, sponsors have decided to spice up the awards – by threatening to pull out if Stonewall goes ahead and announces a Bigot of the Year winner.

Coutts (RBS-owned, but sshh, don’t mention that to any of its wealthy customers) – which is only a category sponsor (the anodyne Writer of the Year) has already pulled its delegation from tonight’s hoe-down. And Barclays – which, rather more challengingly appears to be a general sponsor – has threatened to terminate its financial commitment.

Mark McLane, managing director and head of Global Diversity and Inclusion at Barclays told The Telegraph: “I have recently been made aware of the inclusion of a ‘Bigot of the Year’ category in the awards. Let me be absolutely clear that Barclays does not support that award category either financially, or in principle and have (sic) informed Stonewall that should they decide to continue with this category we will not support this event in the future. To label any individual so subjectively and pejoratively runs contrary to our view on fair treatment, and detracts from what should be a wholly positively focused event.”

So, righteous fulmination at the underhand introduction of a new category, eh, Mark? Well not quite. Some swift desk research, which even someone as grand as a managing director and head of Global Diversity and Inclusion might deign to do before opening his mouth, would reveal that Bigot of the Year has been a staple of the Stonewall awards since 2006. And, even more interestingly, Barclays itself seems to have supported the self-same awards since 2009. Now I know that there has been a lot of staff churn at Barclays recently and corporate memory tends to be – at the best of times – short. Even so, wakey, wakey, Mark. Or is Stonewall so low down the list of sponsorable causes that you simply haven’t noticed it before?

Either way, Stonewall should sack Barclays before Barclays sacks Stonewall. With friends like that… Surely corporate bullying is just the sort of thing Stonewall is trying to stamp out?


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