In this day and age, media manipulation – one can call it “news management” if you wish – is an art form. And like modern art it comes in many different forms, some brilliant and some charlatan. The mainstream, old-fashioned media (people with salaries) consists of the older generation clinging on to their jobs as best they can, and the younger ambitious and hungry generation who will work for less and cut more corners to make their names. It is a tough game, particularly in a world where the spin-doctors have been able to build empires by teaching people how to manipulate the system.
It is fairly simple to get any message you want out to the general public. You need one pet journalist to write a story in a newspaper or on a website and then the bottom-feeders of the Internet pick up the story and run it as fact without even going through the motions of checking whether there is any reality to it. In most cases they cannot check because they have no access to the people in the sport.
The newspapers, even the ones that we think we can trust, are easily manipulated because all the deskmen want is a headline. Their job is to sell newspapers not to agonise over whether there is substance to a story, or whether the journalist has been deliberately nobbled. A story is a story whether it is right or wrong and there is an unquenchable thirst for news, news, news. Even the old heavies of Fleet Street have dumbed down their content to meet the demands of the market. It is at this level that modern journalism is failing because it is hard to look for stories and so much easier to take the leaks that come one’s way or soup-up available press releases and quotes. If you work for a big national newspaper you cannot afford to ignore a phone call from someone in the news who wants to spin you a line. Access is key and those who understand this see that they can manipulate the media by withdrawing access. In other cases, people who are in the news cleverly draw in such journalists and give them a drip feed of information which creates a dependency which the writer fears will end if they are critical of the source. Thus the journalist becomes a propaganda tool and has to report what he is told.
The greatest skill of all media manipulation, however, is in shaping the way in which the story is delivered. Clever media manipulators know that if you want to bury bad news, you put out a statement on a Friday evening, or at the same moment as a huge story has broken. There can also be diversions that lead the pack in the wrong direction and take their attention away from the real issue. And there are gentle intimations of things that might happen which reduce the impact of the news when they do eventually happen. News is like air coming from a tyre: it can leak quietly and slowly as the result of a slow puncture, or it can make a big bang with a dramatic delamination.
Headlines are rarely made by slow punctures…
Thus I look at the suggestion that Bernie Ecclestone is considering handing over control of the Formula One group because he is spending too much time on his own legal matters as a pretty significant story.
The last thing that Ecclestone wants is to give up doing what he does. It is not about the money. It is about the fun and without F1, Bernie’s fun will be much reduced. For me this smacks of media management with the goal being to introduce the idea that there could be a succession coming, without making it into huge headlines. “I might do this” and “I might do that” are a lot less likely to create front page news as “Ecclestone pushed out” or “Bernie quits”. Nonetheless I get the feeling that things are moving gradually in that direction and while Bernie is still banging on about Christian Horner (presumably as he would be a Medvedev to Bernie’s Putin) CVC Capital Partners seem to be keeping its cards close to its chest. Out in the shadows lurks the soon-to-be ex-Sainsbury’s boss Justin King. A few other names have been thrown around but King has announced he is leaving his current job, which is fair indication that he has other plans.