'PA can deliver an accurate record of what is said – but is it always the truth?'

Who needs PA? In the world of churnalism ­ where so many of us are forced to spend so much time recycling second-hand, unchecked material – we all do.

Around 70 per cent of home news stories in our quality papers carry its product. As PA’s editor, Jonathan Grun said in an interview for my book Flat Earth News: ‘The fact is we are the central heart of the media industry.”

But is the Press Association good enough? I believe PA is honest in intent, efficient in performance and cost-effective as a business – and entirely inadequate for the role in which it has now been cast.

To see this, you have first to recognise the background picture, in which the same corporate owners whose accountants have forced most national newspaper journalists to become mere churnalists, have also cut the supply lines which once fed raw news to them from around the country. They cut the network of staff journalists in the regions. The old News Chronicle, for example, had nine district reporters scattered through the north of England, Wales and Scotland, all working to an office in Manchester, as well as staff reporters in Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham and Southampton. Who now has that kind of staff cover?

But much worse, they inflicted death by starvation on the national web of freelance agencies. With their budgets cut, Fleet Street news desks ordered less copy and paid less for what they did order. All across the country, agencies started to shed staff and then to close.

In the Leeds area, for example, there were five agencies harvesting stories from the city; only one survived. In Manchester, one closed, one shrank and only one survived at full strength. On Merseyside, three closed and one survived, its staff falling at one point from eighteen to only seven. In Sheffield, White’s agency cut back from 10 staff to only two.

All over rural Britain, the one-man outfits which had covered village life went bust, while the bigger rural agencies shrank. Mid-Staffordshire News was cut down to a one-man team. Kent saw two agencies fold and one survive. Anglia Press was cut back from 10 staff to four. Calyx in Dorset went from six staff to one. Specialist court-reporting agencies – a major supply line – went the same way. There was one remaining major supply line – the reporters on the local newspapers who dug out stories for their own titles and sold the best of them up the line to Fleet Street. But they were taken over by the same corporations and subjected to the same treatment.

In the 10 years from 1986, according to the Newspaper Society, 403 local titles were closed – 24 per cent of the 1,687 which had been supplying news to their areas and to the nationals. Those which survived saw their staffing cut to the bone; some local newsrooms were replaced by regional hubs, cut off from their communities, and senior reporters were replaced with low-paid trainees.

And to replace these thousands of lost staff and freelance reporters with all their contacts and all their local knowledge, the new corporate owners of Fleet Street turned for home news to the Press Association. And, in response, PA increased its district staff from 20 reporters to 70 and distributed them through offices in the Irish republic, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and major cities in England.

PA refused to confirm these numbers, but, according to staff there, the agency now attempts to cover the whole of Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Cumbria with just five reporters, including trainees based in Manchester. The Newcastle area has four. Leeds and Yorkshire has three. Merseyside, Cheshire and north Wales has two. Cardiff has four for the whole of south Wales and the Welsh Assembly. There are 15 for the whole of Scotland. And these reporters work shift patterns, so there is never a time when they are all at work.

I analysed five days of PA output of UK home news and found that, in place of the old network, PA on any one of those five days was deploying from London and its district offices a total of no more than 69 reporters to cover: Both houses of parliament, 410 local councils, the national network of criminal and civil courts, 43 police services and police authorities, the environment and transport, 151 primary care trusts, 150 local education authorities, consumer affairs, family finance, science and industry, sudden deaths, human interest, showbusiness, religion and the royal family. On the Sunday I monitored, they used 20 reporters to cover the whole nation.

And that staff can’t fall back on buying in copy from local freelances, partly because so many of them have gone out of business, and partly because PA has cut back hard on its budgets for freelance copy. Internal PA audits suggest that, between 1992 and 1997, their use of local correspondents fell from 40 per cent of their output to only six per cent. One former head of a district PA office told me he had been instructed simply to buy no freelance copy at all.

My point is that PA cannot dig out anything like the number of stories which the old network covered. And that is why, for example, in most courts and council chambers around the country, you are more likely to see a rhino than a reporter. What once was news is now invisible.

And beyond that, can we trust PA to tell the truth? I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a PA reporter who wasn’t peculiarly obsessed with accuracy. But that does not mean that they have the working conditions, the experience or simply the time to find the truth.

PA reporters told me they routinely start the day by writing stories from press releases and other newspapers and, since they are doing this from 4.30am, they cannot possibly find anybody to check them with. One of their senior editors agreed that this happens.

One senior PA specialist said that when he first joined the agency 25 years earlier, he had written no more than three stories a day, whereas now he expects to write an average of 10 in a single shift: ‘I don’t usually spend more than an hour on a story. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to write so many.”

Apart from the fact that PA reporters have so little chance to check their material, this churnalism in PA is built on a foundation which crucially – and generally unrecognised in Fleet Street – is inherently weak on the truth. PA is a news agency, not a newspaper. It is not attempting, nor does it claim to be attempting to tell people the truth about the world.

As its editor, Jonathan Grun, put it to us: ‘What we do is report what people say and accurately”. The PA reporter goes to the press conference with the intention of capturing an accurate record of what is said. Whether what is said is itself a truthful account of the world is simply not their business.

Indeed, PA reporters say they would be breaking their own in-house rules if they started challenging speakers. They would be accused of making the news instead of reporting it. Sleuthing, Grun said, is not PA’s role: ‘Our role is attributable journalism – what someone has got to say. What is important is in quote marks.’If the Prime Minister says there are chemical weapons in Iraq, that is what the good news agency will report.

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