Fake authenticity: the compassion lie

I may lose friends. I may attract abuse. But this is one of those moments when I feel like I can no longer resist the urge to point and shout “the king is in the altogether.”

What am I talking about?

Fake authenticity.

Never heard of it? There’s a lot of it about, and you’d do worse than read this piece by Jonathan MacDonald – The Fallacy of Social Media.

In it he touches upon the fake approach taken to telling stories and building relationships online, particularly in the realm of social media.

Someone once said to me that to use expressions like “telling stories” in the context of PR was to admit that it was all spin, lies and bullshit.

The more I reflect on that the more convinced I am that it’s one of the most ignorant things anyone’s ever said to me and I should have said as much at the time.

Whether you are an individual, a brand marketer, a politician, a social media coordinator, when you are telling people something about who you are, what you do, how you behave, or what you believe in, you are telling them your story.

If you bullshit them you’ll get found out eventually.

Something Jonathan MacDonald picks up on is a piece of advice mooted by someone that says: “Act like you’re a company made of real, actual people, and good things will surely follow.”

It’s a liars charter in tl;dr form. And I find it quite distasteful.

As I’ve already said, there’s a lot of it about. And it’s not just brands that are doing it. I see a lot of people in my stream doing it constantly.

Recently jazz musician Terry Callier died. But for his work with the likes of Massive Attack he would only have been known to a fraction of the people in my stream – those who are serious-minded fans of music, or seek out interesting non-mainstream things to listen to. I don’t fall into either of those categories, just to be clear.

I remain unconvinced that a great many people who own something he worked on had ever heard of him either. In fact, I got a bit nauseated by the wave of “oh that’s terrible. #rip” tweets I saw from people who spend most Saturday evenings are watching X-Factor.

Oh, yes you are a very serious and dedicated follower of interesting musical collaborations, aren’t you?

No, you’re not. You’re a bullshit merchant trying to make yourself look cool, or – worse – desperately hoping to connect with something real, something meaningful to fill that foetid hole you drag round with you everywhere you are.

It was also evident in the wake of Hurricane Sandy making landfall in the US. “It’s awful,” read one tweet I saw, “13 people have been killed. #sandy”

Yes, of course it’s awful. Truly awful. Particularly for those directly involved. But do you know what else is awful…? The fact that the person whose tweet I saw – and the dozens more like them – had expressed no concern or compassion whatsoever for those left dead, displaced and traumatized by Sandy in Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, the Bahamas, and probably other parts of the Caribbean too. Haiti hasn’t recovered from the earthquake it was hit by in 2010, and was in the midst of a cholera outbreak when Sandy passed close by. So fucking what, eh..?

The death toll in the Caribbean is around 70. Probably more. It’s possible no one will ever know.

The only time I saw anyone on twitter referring to that was as a counterpoint to the many, many, “I hope everyone in New York stays safe” type tweets.

Why is it that so many people, here in the UK, were so eager to express such concern?

Dislocated empathy. Not misplaced. Dislocated.

Of course we all hoped that everyone was going to be ok in New York and elsewhere in the US. The same ought to apply to everywhere that was in the path of Hurricane Sandy. No..?

Yet it would appear to be ok, desirable even, to carry on ignoring the plight of poor black countries hit by disaster, when latte-sipping, iPhone-using, GAP-shopping people, wherever they may be, have also been affected by something bad.

I know it’s easier to identify with people who have similar lives, but that’s no excuse, in my opinion, for not giving enough of a damn about the rest of the world to pause your lazy thinking and cast off your me-opia.

It made me rather cross. Still does. You might have noticed.

But more than that, it was telling to see the stories people tell about themselves.

Who do I indentify with..? Who can I identify with..? What kind of person shall I be today…

If you’re a genuinely compassionate person, and care about what happens to others, you can see further than those that wear the same clothes as you, or even the countries where you have personal contacts.

And you aren’t compelled to bleat about it in public in an attempt to define yourself.

Fake authenticity.

Nice work people.


Do we have the press we deserve?

Updated 5 July 2011

On 4 July it emerged that the News of the World had done far worse than hack into the voicemail inboxes of celebrities and politicians. Someone working for the paper had accessed the inbox of the then missing teenager Milly Dowler. At some point between Milly’s disappearance and the discovery of her dead body, voicemails from her phone were deleted. This act, we are told, caused her parents – who had no doubt been franticly calling her but unable to leave further messages at a full inbox, to believe she was still alive.

This depraved act has, thankfully, been taken seriously by Parliament – the whole sordid affair will be debated by the House of Commons on 6 July.

There has already been a considerable public backlash against the News of the World, with calls for advertisers to pull out their commercial support for the paper. Some have already indicated they will indeed take such action.

I am sure I speak for most people when I say I sincerely hope the perpetrators of this criminal and morally bankrupt behaviour are subject to the full weight of the law.

I can’t help but wonder, however, when similar scrutiny will fall upon the role of the Metropolitan Police and the widespread speculation concerning their collusion in the mobile phone hacking scandal.

The British press has a fearsome reputation both at home and abroad. It’s one of the reasons so many former UK journalists find high-powered jobs as corporate communications advisers to some of the biggest names worldwide.

Investigative journalism at its best has brought down tyrants, exposed fraudsters, and highlighted miscarriages of justice. It is no coincidence that in some of the most locked-down regimes there are more constraints upon what the press can effectively get away with. Indeed, the freedom of the press is one of those concepts clung to fiercely by many in this country.

Rightly so, in my opinion.

But – as anyone who has read the British press widely in the last 15 years will know – the excesses of the tabloid media have caused many a raised eyebrow.

From Fake Sheikhs to allegations of Nazi-themed sex parties there has been an unending stream of sensational stories to titillate and tantalise. Many seem to blur the lines between that which is in the public interest and those things that are deemed to be of interest to members of the newspaper-buying public.

As a former journalist, I have enjoyed the freedom to ask challenging questions and to protect my sources. I’ve had libel writs served on me, and even death threats. OK, just one death threat – but one is enough. I never felt I had to curtail my journalistic instincts in order to kowtow to the whims of publishers, advertisers, the police, the subjects of the pieces I wrote, anyone in fact.

When I hear people complain about the “rubbish that gets printed in the papers” my standard response has usually been to say we get the press we deserve and to make the point that the so-called rubbish only gets published because people flock to read it.

Shady goings on behind the scenes at some of the UK biggest newspapers have now begun to be dragged into the light in the wake of the News of the World phone hacking scandal (not a word I use lightly, but one which I think fits here).

The ins and outs of who knew what, and who sanctioned the illegal actions – namely hacking into voicemail messages on the mobile phones of a string of celebrities, politicians, civil servants and other public figures – is still the subject of debate and investigation. But some of the details to emerge are as damning of the culture of the UK media as they are downright shocking.

Top of my list of things to be concerned about is the link between News of the World reporters and the Metropolitan Police. I offer here only my opinion, but having heard that Metropolitan Police officers were paid sources for some News of the World reporters (how many news reporters wouldn’t like to be tipped off about high profile arrests, so they could be on hand to cover them) I start to feel a growing sense of unease.

You don’t need to be a genius to figure out the incredible potential for a conflict of interests when a newspaper allegedly encouraging its reporters to break the law is also regularly paying serving police officers for news leads. Throw into the mix the claim by a former senior officer in the Metropolitan Police, Brian Paddick, that his phone had been hacked into by the News of the World and the whole thing starts to feel very grubby indeed.

It’s unpleasantly reminiscent of the script of a movie, where the mob has paid off the police to ensure a blind eye is always turned to their criminal activity.

Now that the lid has been blown off this miserable affair, I’m left asking myself do we get the press we deserve?

I worry this is more than an isolated case of a newspaper’s ethics being trampled in the rush to boost sales in the midsts of a highly competitive media landscape.

This is, I fear, as much a wider dereliction of societal morality – an attitude of if I can get away with it, then I’m going to do it.

In October 1987, in an interview with one of the least combative publications imaginable, Woman’s Own, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said: “… who is society? There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”

Clearly this is nonsense. Dangerous nonsense though, which set the tone for the next two decades and beyond.

The promotion of the individual, and their so-called rights, that took place in this country and in others (yes America I am looking at you) has spawned a generation of individuals who simply don’t care about the implications, or even the legality, of their actions.

That there were journalists working for the most widely-read British Sunday newspaper who felt breaking the law was an acceptable route to scoops and stories is, for me, an indication that the UK’s moral compass may be broken.

Do we have the press we deserve?

Yes, we do.

And that is a reputation to be feared.

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