Media: A Moment with Marquis

Don't bite the hand that feeds. A sensible and pragmatic view of the world, most of us would agree, but it is not one that cuts much ice with the editors of national newspapers.

Nor should it. Where would we be if journalists were so craven as to hold back on stories of genuine public concern because of commercial interest?

Certainly the editor of the Daily Mail would not have given a thought to the advertising revenue from Marks & Spencer when it ran coverage critical of the retailer.

Indeed, one cannot imagine a different policy applying in any mainstream publication or medium that makes a serious claim to editorial independence and integrity. But every now and then, the media find that advertisers will say enough is enough and withdraw advertising in the face of editorial attack.

In some ways, it is remarkable that this does not happen all the time, and it says much for the tolerance of advertisers that they recognise a strong, independent press is ultimately in their interest - even when it's being beastly to them.

In fact, there are strong arguments for never pulling out and M&S's reported decision to pull out of Associated Newspapers' titles will not have been taken lightly. For one thing, withdrawing advertising will have no effect on editorial position.

At no point in recorded history has it been known for an editor to climb down as a result of an ad boycott - rather the reverse: when the gloves are off, all restraint is gone.

The advertiser is also missing out on an important audience if they withdraw.

The Daily Mail is a media bullseye for M&S and it will leave a sizeable gap in coverage and influence. The Mail reader - for the time being, anyway - will see only the negative story about M&S.

In most cases, then, it must be better for advertisers to battle it out, turn the other cheek and stay put. Perhaps there is even an opportunity to be had - a change in copy, some smart retaliation.

In spite of all this, there is one very good reason why M&S was right to pull out. Ads look silly in a hostile environment. It is the same reason why airlines pull their advertising when an accident happens: it makes them look insensitive and ridiculous to extol the virtues of air travel when there's a plane lying somewhere in bits with hundreds dead.

So this little spat is exactly that: a short-term retreat from the frontline while unfriendly circumstances prevail. If it goes on for longer, then someone somewhere will have lost the plot and no-one wins.

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