MEDIA FORUM: Should newspapers avoid criticising advertisers?

Is MG Rover right to punish Express Group for its negative coverage of the company? And might we see more of this action? Alasdair Reid asks.

There's surely never been a better time to bully a newspaper or two. If you're an advertiser with grudges stretching back over the years over how your results have been reported or how you've been gleefully trashed because of product cock-ups or been pulled up by consumer affairs reporters, this could well be pay-back time.

Across the industry, newspaper morale is as low as it has been in living memory, especially on the editorial side and (especially on serious broadsheet and mid-market titles) their stock of integrity is at a very low ebb indeed.

You won't find many editors raising cries about freedom of the press when they are delivering corking cock-ups at such an alarming rate.

Editorial budget cuts have really come home to roost and the newspaper industry really doesn't have a leg to stand on these days. Look at the blistering letter from Harrod's owner, Mohamed Fayed, that The Sunday Telegraph was forced to carry a couple of weeks back. The newspaper had wrongly accused Fayed of being involved in a uranium smuggling ring and the wealthy shop owner retaliated by accusing the newspaper of waging a "vendetta" against him.

So, if you are an advertiser or a media agency, you could take a leaf out of MG Rover's book and hurt a newspaper or two where it really hurts - especially as recession really threatens to bite. Just pick up the phone and threaten to pull your ad budgets for the whole year.

MG has been upset about a series of articles calling into question its financial stability. Like the Telegraph-Fayed saga, MG believes this is vendetta journalism of a very low sort and, having tried and failed to set the record straight, it is pulling its £3 million spend across all the Express Group's newspapers.

Is this something we're likely to see more of, especially this year, as papers struggle even more desperately to make ends meet? If so, is it to be welcomed by advertisers?

Alan Doyle, the communications director of Volkswagen, says there are two issues here. We shouldn't confuse them. He explains: "The first relates to the integrity of editorial content. If you believe that it is slipping, you have a duty to act in the best interests of the brand. You don't want the brand to be associated with a quality of editorial you believe to be bankrupt. But the second area is more about people writing about the brand and targeting it in a negative manner. Generally, you have to be big boys about that. You can talk to the media owner and indicate you have addressed the issues they have raised and hope they respond but you have got to accept that you can't exercise complete control. There are always going to be things written about you that you don't like. You have to grit your teeth."

The moot point, of course, is where fair comment passes over into lazy vindictiveness. Some in the industry say that several newspapers have painted themselves into a corner through editorial budget cuts and talent culls. This can result in a higher percentage of desperate stuff on the pages.

So are sanctions fair game? Or should we all stop being so squeamish?

The ability of our newspapers to be "robust" when the mood takes them is perhaps one of their great strengths - and without such colourful behaviour they would lose even more of their ability to draw in readers.

Mark Gallagher, the head of press at Manning Gottlieb OMD, says there are more sophisticated ways to approach this issue. "When an advertiser pulls advertising from a publication it's usually a knee-jerk reaction, though it's not always the right one. When the Tom Bower book (Losing My Virginity, which made allegations about Richard Branson's business methods and the financial stability of his empire) came out, we could have made certain decisions about ad budgets but we took the view that the brands were bigger than that," he states.

Gallagher argues that where the Sunday Express and MG Rover issue is concerned, you can indeed take a stance about the merits, or otherwise, of the paper's editorial qualities and point to the fact that the paper's proprietor, Richard Desmond, is rather less than lavish when it comes to editorial budgets. But that sort of analysis may miss the bigger picture.

"You could argue that the money saved has allowed him to launch new products which are to the benefit of us all and the Express papers are still doing relatively well," he argues.

And maybe it's true that clients tend to be more focused on technical issues concerned with circulation figures, readership, ratecards and trading.

But why don't advertisers seem to engage with publishers on a broad range of issues in the way they do with broadcasters, especially ITV, over schedules and individual programmes?

Stuart Taylor, The Guardian's director of advertising, believes it is because there is more diversity and competition in the press. In addition, freedom of the press is an emotive issue. "This sort of thing usually arises because of an opinion expressed in a paper and it is usually flagged as an opinion. Advertisers know that people value opinions and that opinions are only valid if they are independent. It wouldn't be much good if every film review was glowing," he says.

"Where newspapers are concerned, I think that most advertisers understand. For instance, when we and other papers were locked in a legal battle with Interbrew (the titles concerned refused to disclose their sources for a financial pages story) the company's brands were still advertising. They were clear it was a separate issue. We understand, of course, that advertisers have a choice but newspapers are edited for readers, not advertisers, and if advertisers value the relationship newspapers have with their readers they realise that they must take the rough with the smooth."

Paul Thomas, the managing partner at MindShare, agrees that advertisers should think carefully here. "I don't think that advertisers should seek to affect journalism. If you do that there won't be very much that journalists can actually write about. Readers should be left to make their own minds up - and, after all, there are lots of different sources of news these days. Most are forgotten the next day. If you take issue, then it creates even more news. The Express has a relatively small readership. Now everybody knows about the MG Rover story. The common-sense thing is for the editor to talk to the advertising department when there's a certain story running and say that they shouldn't carry inappropriate advertising opposite it," he reasons.

And he concludes: "But I don't think there's a problem with editorial budgets. Newspapers are businesses and you can't expect them to act in unrealistic ways."