The power of the media: Brand, Ross and the US Election. (Oh, and don't forget Fife too)
As America goes to the polls today, I am worried about how both candidates seem hopelessly out of touch with European issues. I mean - neither Obama nor the Other Guy have expressed an opinion on Russell Brand or Jonathan Ross.
At least Gordon Brown shows he is a man of the people. Even if he didn't hear the broadcast himself, he knows what will swing the voters of Fife.
One of the most fascinating things about working in media relations is trying to understand how and why news becomes news.
This last week there should have been two main stories: the US election and Gordon's last stand in a Scottish by-election. Instead we had almost blanket coverage of a prank phone call on a radio show. How did that happen?
As David Randall points out (in the Independent on Sunday) of an approximate 400,000 audience tuning in to the broadcast only two listeners bothered to complain. Some reports even suggested that Andrew Sachs, who had been played the excerpt over the phone, did not register a complaint. Yet days later, some 30,000 people, from the Prime Minister down were calling for the heads of the two rude presenters.
When I am called to defend the media - as I do sometimes - I have been known to point out that the media does not create attitudes it simply reflects and reports. Last year in the midst of xenophobic, racist coverage of asylum seekers it pained me to think that papers like the Daily Express were simply reflecting the concerns of ordinary people and so my theory has been stretched to its limit.
So what of Sachsgate? Was this a case where the media itself created the frenzy, or did it merely reflect public opinion. Did the Mail on Sunday serve the public by alerting people to something they ought to know about, did it simply speed up the complaints? Or without the paper's intervention, would the whole broadcast simply have gone as unnoticed as it was on the day of transmission?
Does the media create the news?
Is this responsible journalism?
If all that is at stake is the careers of two presenters, a former household name and a wannabe pop star who happens to be the granddaughter of said former household name, who cares?
But what if there are more important issues to report on - like the election of arguably the most powerful man in the world? Then we should be worried about whether the media creates or covers the news.
I still remember the UK General Election that was supposed to have been the end of Tory rule. I was in France at the time; with a party of about 30 people who had all cast their postal votes before leaving the UK. No one openly admitted voting for John Major, until the results were in. Then the following morning, one by one, enough of my fellow travellers admitted they had bottled out of voting Labour when it came to actually putting a cross on a piece of paper.
What is the danger of that happening today? When it comes to actually voting for a mixed race novice, will Americans change their minds at the last minute?
As we saw in the UK all those years ago, the media coverage of opinion polls can be hugely significant. In France they ban reporting of opinion polls in the week before the vote - but then they came perilously close to electing the National Front's Jean-Marie le Pen for President, because there was no barometer of public opinion in the newspapers to guide voters.
In America today, by the time the polls close at one end of the country there will still be several hours of voting elsewhere. So should the US media cover exit polls in New York while there is still time to influence electors who have still to cast their votes in California?
Even if there is a general embargo on coverage, as we saw with Sachsgate it only takes one reporter with an eye for a story to phone the person he thinks should complain about something and the whole thing can snowball.... out of control? You decide.