All industries have their little trade secrets, methods of production they would prefer to keep under wraps, and the news media is no different. That is why the general public is unaware that most political parties dispatch PR kits to their press contacts in the days before the Christmas and New Year’s Eve period, filled with prepackaged stories intended for publication on specific dates across the holiday season. These kits help the newspapers fill out their pages – and websites – during the festive week, when politicians and journalists are on a seasonal lull. In most cases, the supplied articles are printed almost verbatim, with headlines and writing styles deliberately suggesting immediacy, rather than something prepared by spin doctors several weeks beforehand.
In the United Kingdom these public relations’ packs are known by a variety of snide names, including “chocolate boxes”, betraying the contempt they are held in by both producers and users. The Labour Party in Scotland refers to its media grid as the “Scottish Labour Christmas Box – Stories for the many, not the few“. We know this because the author and broadcaster Derek Bateman has done the unprecedented thing of actually publishing the contents of the Labour PR document on his campaigning website. And he has done so to the obvious irritation and annoyance of his fellow journalists in Scotland, and beyond. Clearly, the UK press follows a variant of the maxim suggested by the American poet John Godfrey Saxe, which might run along the following lines: “journalism, like sausages, ceases to inspire respect in proportion as we know how it is made.”
The truth, of course, is that much of the mainstream media has become an informational meat grinder, with ingredients of dubious quality going in one end, and barely palatable journalistic offal coming out the other. To some extent, it was always thus, but the age of the internet has reduced many news gathering and reporting organisations to the role of content providers, self-referential versions of the online bloggers and YouTubers the press otherwise criticise and condemn. While PR releases might not be “fake news” in the more conventional sense of the term, if used without due attribution or openness they come perilously close to “artificial news”. Which is just as bad.