Good campaigns good for newspapers

The received wisdom that campaigning journalism does not sell newspapers was challenged last night at a London Press Club and Pagefield debate held at News UK’s News Building.

Campaigning Newspapers in a Digital Age saw a top panel discuss the issues in front of a capacity crowd at the London Bridge home to The Sun and Times titles. Sunday Times deputy editor Sarah Baxter chaired the debate and was joined by Daily Mail deputy editor Tony Gallagher, Change.org global communications director John Coventry, senior Sun features campaigner Sharon Hendry and London Evening Standard campaigns editor David Cohen.

Sharon Hendry, John Coventry, Sarah Baxter, Tony Gallagher and David Cohen
Sharon Hendry, John Coventry, Sarah Baxter, Tony Gallagher and David Cohen

“Campaigning is not just window dressing – it should be in every good newspaper’s DNA,” said Hendry, whose numerous projects include The Sun’s recent slavery campaign and the 2010 book Radhika’s Story: Surviving Human Trafficking. “Does it sell papers? Probably not.” The latter view was challenged by fellow panelist Cohen and senior industry figures in the audience.

“From what I’m told, advertisers really do like newspaper campaigns,” added Cohen, winner of the Paul Foot and Cudlipp awards, in response to an audience query suggesting otherwise. He was backed up by Standard managing editor, and Press Club chairman, Doug Wills, who said: “They get focus – the right campaign is a news story. Good campaigns are good for newspapers.”

Sarah Baxter asked the panel about the impact of the Leveson Inquiry on campaigning and investigative journalism. Gallagher, who before joining the Daily Mail was editor of the Daily Telegraph said: “We are hampered more than we have got across to the public. ” He cited the effects of the Bribery Act which did not exclude journalists and curtailed some investigations into matters of public interest.Gallagher added: “What Leveson said about whistleblowers – that they should call hotlines and not papers – was incredibly damaging.”

John Coventry gave an insight into Change.org, billed as the world’s largest petition platform, saying that the distinction between online and offline campaigning was now minimal. “Every metric we have is about achieving victory – it is not just about numbers.” And while another received wisdom is that the surge in social media has lessened the impact of traditional media, he said that newspapers are still the first validators of causes with grass-root origins. “When it goes from online to a ‘proper newspaper’ people get worried.”

Gallagher said that one major impact of social media was on those businesses who are the subject of campaigns. “It’s much harder to take a vow of silence now – saying nothing is not an option any more.” He gave the recent change in Starbucks’ UK tax policy as an example. “Consumers can get their milky coffee from plenty of other places.” He also argued that leading British politicians do still not seem to understand social media. “They have a very juvenile relationship to the online world – whenever you see Cameron or Miliband on Twitter it reminds me of a dad dancing.”

Hendry spoke of how rewarding a successful campaign can be, from her first one at The Sun on domestic violence inspiring other victims to get in touch and take action to forcing the resignation of a ‘shambolic’ Child Support Agency chief. While best known for major, ongoing campaigns including Dispossessed and Frontline London, Cohen added: “Some of the most effective stuff I have been involved in has actually been rather small.”

The view from the News Building
The view from the News Building

Pagefield managing partner Oliver Foster said “We were delighted to partner up with London Press Club last year and it’s a partnership that’s going from strength to strength in 2015. Thanks to the generosity of News UK’s hosting, the incredible view from the Baby Shard was more than matched by the quality of the panel. Attendees heard from some of the UK’s leading journalists and campaigners who have been involved in some of the most high-profile events and stories in recent years. For Pagefield, interesting and exciting campaigns are what make us tick, and so it is always fantastic – for us and our clients – to be able to bring together people with experience from such a wide range of sectors.” 

Chaired by the UK’s former Ambassador to the U.S., Sir Christopher Meyer, and with a team of 30 consultants working with over 60 clients, Pagefield is a multi-award-winning independent communications agency, specialising in corporate and crisis PR, public affairs and reputation management. Pagefield works for clients across a wide range of sectors, and they include Airbnb, Camelot, EDF Energy, the Falkland Islands Government, Kellogg’s, and Stonewall.

The event was the latest in a series of London Press Club events on the key media issues of today, with previous speakers including Alan Rusbridger, Sarah Sands, Sam Allardyce, Kay Burley and Damian McBride. The next debate, Election 2015: Can it still be the Sun wot wins it? takes place at the Telegraph on March 5 in aid of The Journalists’ Charity, with Trevor Kavanagh, Peter Kellner, Rachel Sylvester and Tom Bradby. For more information email info@londonpressclub.co.uk.

Richard Dymond

Honorary Treasurer and Director of the London Press Club and the London Press Club Ball.

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