On Public Relations

Games journalists have been getting upset, and it’s all TV’s Robert Florence’s fault.

After a year of watching ‘journalism’ receive an overdue public bollocking, following decades of editors cheerfully wiping their filthy arses all over the rulebook, it’s weird to think that there are people who are still trying to fit the debased crown of ‘journalist’ on top of their silly, misguided heads. As soon as games journalism comes in for a bit of the Leveson treatment, suddenly everyone’s shrieking ‘corruption’, which has got the games writer elite up in arms. What on Earth happened?

In an article for Eurogamer this week, Florence pointed out a number of examples where corporate cosiness has undermined the ‘journalism’ of particular games writers. For the severe crime of hinting the line between the enthusiast press and the PR agents feeding them content might be too blurred, he receives an apparent threat of a libel writ from Lauren Wainwright, writer for such ethically-sound organs as Gamespot and The Sun. Meanwhile, armies of games mag staffers and their Twitter groupies – hoping for a scrap or two of freelance as reward – are mobilising punchy defences of their profession.

The worst of the bunch immediately dam their ears to all suggestions of self-reflection and quickly move to portray themselves as low-paid honest brokers, just trying to encapsulate their feelings about children’s computer games for the enjoyment of the rest of us. Some make hilarious jokes about being loaded down with PR loot, as if anyone is suggesting the situation is as simple as ‘free stuff = good review’. Some cretins label the entire thing a ‘conspiracy theory’.

Florence himself, meantime, gets the offending parts of his Eurogamer article subbed out of existence, and consequently, he resigns from the column. At the same time, John Walker of the never-knowingly-proof-read Rock Paper Shotgun gets all self-loathing about it, then calls the whole affair ‘a disgrace’.

It’s a fucking fuss and a half, I’ll grant him. But as usual, everyone is wrong but me.

The problem is that enthusiast ‘journalists’ (games writers, and by extension, music writers, film writers, etc) are just an arm of the PR industry. That’s what we are. Suck it up. We’re not ‘journalists’, we’re a promotional tool.

In order to gather content for our various publications, we build working relationships with people who want to get featured in them. Most PRs won’t pick up their ball and take it home if you don’t play quite the way they want you to, but it can happen. And speaking from my own lowly experience, once you properly piss someone off, then bang, there goes your access, nine times out of ten. Fair enough, I say. Why should a PR waste their time and money on someone who upsets their clients?

That’s an untenable situation for a print magazine or an ad-supported website, though, because both rely on monies from the very entities they are supposed to be criticising in order to survive. Nobody really believes that advertising departments carefully oversee all editorial decisions, but the conflict between church and state, so to speak, is all too real, and well-documented with examples. To pretend it just doesn’t happen, as many journalists do, is disingenuous.

In an ideal world, everyone would be happy, readers and advertisers both. But then you’re instantly forced to tread a line between writing whatever you want and conforming to what conventional, received wisdom, the kind that slips out undetected, tells you should say to avoid upsetting people.

Of course individual ‘journalists’ don’t think they’re compromised. Of course individual PRs and publisher reps don’t think they’re exerting undue influence over writers. That doesn’t mean they aren’t. In most cases, I would dare suggest, the cosh never even needs to be applied, because by and large, it’s simply taken as read that there’s certain things You Must Not Say.

When Lauren Wainwright lists consultancy work for Square-Enix on her CV, while also heavily promoting Square-Enix’s forthcoming misogyny simulator Tomb Raider on her personal Twitter page, she can just handwave that as a simple expression of her personal enthusiasm for the game. What’s more, she can be thoroughly convinced that this is the case. That she is just doing her employer’s PR work for them, by clothing herself in approved marketing materials entirely of her own volition, is apparently lost on her; just as the lessons are lost on Mr Swag and Mr Conspiracy mentioned above. Never mind that it makes them look a bit like they might be for sale, they’re all just really looking forward to Busty Spelunker Adventure Part 10.

John Walker, meanwhile, exhibits a few admirable principles in Florence’s defence, recalling moments in his own career that could be considered ethically dodgy, and then inviting criticism for it. But then loudly exhorting that he can’t actually be capital-c Corrupt because he hasn’t got the energy for it is mealy-mouthed, naive and childish. Objectivity is precluded by the job you do, Walker. You’re not engaged in the pursuit of truth, you just write down opinions that you have had about kids’ toys and hope someone will buy them off you. And you can claim not to care about your advertisers all fucking day long, but I bet you’d start caring the minute they stopped paying your rent. Get out of your pulpit.

And that’s what has really annoyed me about all this: An absolute insistence on dismissing criticisms of the established business practices of journalism as ignorant, paranoid wool-gathering, and this coming from those who have the most invested in the status quo (Walker included).

To a degree, though, they’re right. It’s not their corruption that’s infecting the PR-journalist system, it’s precisely the opposite. This is the system working as intended: Driven by unspoken motives of profit, bending everything it possibly can to that end. Nobody conspired it, it just grew this way over the course of decades doing business, until pursuit of profit was written into its DNA. These journalists are compromised by the very organisations they’re a part of and they rigidly refuse to see it.

So when Rab Florence gets told off for exposing the inner machinery of enthusiast journalism to a cursory examination, leading his employers to immediately censor him, shoving the author himself even further outside the journalist clique like an organism rejecting a foreign body; and when John Walker conspicuously and proudly declares himself no longer impartial enough to provide reviews of a particular company’s games because he sucked the lead programmer’s dick last weekend, just remind yourself of the following:

The system is working as intended.

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