Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How PRs make their clients look bad

I went to the National Film Theatre to see Molly Dineen interviewed about her documentaries. The new box set contains her films about Geri Halliwell, the House of Lords and the farming industry in crisis. Talking to Mark Lawson she recounted how hard she’d had to fight against Alastair Campbell when making her short film about Tony Blair to save it from consisting of endless unconvincing pieces to camera. It was only when she filmed him in his kitchen that he came over as sympathetically as she had found him in real life. She showed a few outtakes where she tries to coach him in how to avoid looking insincere. In the same vein she showed a clip of Geri Halliwell phoning her lawyer to assert her editorial control over the film that Dineen is already making as she’s doing so.

Dineen also revealed that she kept some information out of her film The Ark that could have looked bad for London Zoo. Lawson pointed out that this might be a dereliction of her duty as a journalist. She said she wasn’t a journalist. She was a film maker and she wanted to make a rounded picture of her subjects and she wasn’t interested in having her material obscured behind one big punchline.

It made me think that what she did was more like magazine profile writing. I thought this even more when she said that nowadays everyone has armies of PRs devoted to making sure she can't make the films she wants. It's the same in magazines. Subjects are scared of letting writers and photographers have any kind of personal access for fear that they will be ridiculed. PRs, frightened of losing their contracts, go along with it. You end up with a sterile half an hour in a hotel room and a boring feature. 

It doesn't make sense. A journalist provided with no raw material is far more likely to make up the deficit in meanness. On the occasions I've enjoyed relatively unlimited access to subjects I’ve deliberately not included material that could easily have been used to make them look bad or stupid. I've done that because I’d come to the conclusion that they weren’t either thing.

The subjects of Dineen's films have ranged from insecure pop stars through crusty old buffers to blokes whose job it is to go round shooting unwanted calves. In her films they emerge as occasionally contradictory, sometimes absurd, but this only makes them easier to like. She’s not interested in making people appear bad or stupid because essentially she doesn’t believe that they are. I think I agree with her. 

That doesn’t mean that I come out of every star encounter thinking I’ve just met someone “lovely”, which is the conclusion you might easily reach when scanning journalists social networking sites. But if I feel that they’re trying to  control my access I’m far more likely to think they're a pain in the arse. If they give me nothing better to write about I’m likely to say so.

1 comment:

  1. If only all journalists were so understanding. It only takes one to have a go at a celebrity to make them wary of interviewers.