In the eyes of the media

When there are problems in public services, people blame the media for making things worse. But it might be better to change how we work with them, writes Barrie Clarke.

American singer-surfer Jack Johnson may not be everyone's cup of tea but he has some nice lines. "Where'd all the good people go? (I've been changing channels and I don't see them on the TV shows)" is one of the best. *

The simple answer to Jack is that the steady progress of good people is what happens off camera: anyone who thinks the media can (or should) be expected to cover it is a (dangerous) dreamer. More important is what we do about it. Because misleading, negative reporting can damage reputations, sometimes irreparably.

There seem to be two possible responses, both rational. First, agree that exposing problems and/or bad people is the media's main job in a free society. They get things wrong but that's a price worth paying and we just have to live with it. Second, agree all the above except the last bit - and help them get it more right, more often. If you're with me for Option 2, consider what we can learn from last year's two biggest water stories.

In spring 2006, the drought facing water companies and the Environment Agency in south-east England was serious. Drought plan actions were agreed, publicised and implemented. There was real common purpose, a great response from customers, lower demand, and limited social and economic impact.

A result then? Not entirely. The spectre of standpipes raised in an official drought update in May stoked up outrage all summer. How could this happen in one of the world's richest regions in the 21st century? The answer was it couldn't - there was never such a possibility. But the reputations of all involved were damaged, especially the industry out front.

The media storm over missed leakage targets was even louder. It followed an Ofwat statement in June linking leaks with drought. In the event, no one tried to defend the indefensible. Companies made extra efforts at no cost to customers. Ofwat's action and warnings against the leakiest company were seen as tough but appropriate, and it has wisely set up a leakage review.

So, things have gone as well as could be expected? Well, no. Coming on top of the drought, the media treatment of leakage was even less forgiving and again not just of the industry. When a firm that supplies millions with one of the most reliable water services in the world is called "Britain's most hated company" something is wrong, and not just with the firm.

Companies and regulators might claim with some reason that bigger agendas have been at work. They've been swept up like bits of paper in a maelstrom of politicking. But some messages are clear - and I apologise if I state the obvious.

For companies: hit targets; work hard to improve customer service but also to engage interest groups including the media; and take steps to be better understood - in a politically exposed service this really is an essential and legitimate investment.

For regulators: remember that single issues run and run and always trump balanced coverage; that journalists are properly in the exposure business; that proportionality may be one of your principles but the media put truth (or even "truth") first.

Above all, think about the precise role of the media in your philosophy of regulation: if it turns out to be more important than you currently think, do something about it. It really will be an essential and legitimate investment.

Reflecting on last year's media, we might conclude as a sector that at least some of the fault lies not in our Stars (or Suns or Mails) but in ourselves. As it happens, a high-level debate on regulation and the media is just emerging, fortunately away from the headlines. I shall come back to this next month.

* Good People, In Between Dreams, 2005

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