Sunday, 2 November 2008

PR news and witches

There's a whole industry these days that you could label PR news. Stories dreamed up by someone with something to sell, which the news media pick up on and present as straight news. There are companies, for example, that produce surveys specifically so they can be used as a tag to get the newspapers interested in a product. And, as Ben Goldacre points out in the excellent Bad Science the PR people also pull in scientists and universities, for instance trying to find some academic who will come up with a 'formula for the best night's sleep' for a mattress company, or some such thing.

However this technique is not just the preserve of the PR agency and survey companies. I have to confess I have myself got the occasional story in local papers by sending them a 'press release' about the Popular Science website. And now a shop that sells Halloween costumes has got in on the act. Last Friday they hit the news because they had arranged petitions trying to get retrospective pardons for the people put to death for being witches, hundreds of years ago. (What was distinctly shocking was the witch-killing scoreline between England and the much smaller Scotland. In Scotland they killed five times as many 'witches'. What does this say?)

This was a superb piece of PR. When I first heard the story on the BBC news they gave it as straight news. Then later they said the costume company was behind it, 'but was still serious about it'. Of course they were serious about it - wouldn't any business be serious about getting free publicity in the national media? It even made the News Quiz.

As for the request itself, it's ludicrous. You can't retrospectively apply today's laws and morality to a different age. You would probably have to give pardons to 95% of those put to death or transported for crimes we either wouldn't recognize or wouldn't punish that way (or at all) today. It's a pointless exercise from that point of view. But what a great publicity stunt. I take my hat off to whoever dreamed it up.

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