As the 2011 riots expose a darker side of British culture, is it time for popular journalists to question their role in setting the moral compass? What's your next assignment - exposing Amy Childs’s vajazzle or turning into the Guardian's next Nick Davies? And which would you prefer?


Perhaps I'm just an old hack trying to salve a guilty conscience but, to me, a journalist without a campaign is like Mother Theresa without a prayer.

Every editor loves a meaty campaign. Campaigns don't just inform, they embed. By that I mean they get you under the duvet with the reader, sharing their sweaty armpits and stale breath. They turn casual commercial engagement into intimacy and facilitate that Mr Spock mind-melding thing, mixing your heart with their soul, to mutual joy. You become them and they become you. 

Campaigns are romantic, idealistic, intense and strategic.

Handled well, they put on sales. Handled badly, they expose you as a bit of an Adrian Mole who drives people bonkers with your silly obsessions.

These points are made even more timely by the recent riots and their exposure of a dark side to British culture. 

To  what extent has popular journalism helped degrade some people’s moral sense? Has an endless obsession with celebrities and empty fame fed crass materialism, social division and a sense of exclusion? Should editors consider this? Could we try harder?

More than any other editorial device, campaigns identify your publication's personality, good or bad, interesting or boring, subversive or settled, involved or indifferent. They are the rock on which your relationship with the reader is built, from flirty introduction to lifelong commitment. Get them right and people will stick with you through thick and thin because they believe you don’t just speak for them, you love them. As you should. 

At a guess, I must have been involved in a hundred or so campaigns. Some worked and some didn't. Some were well-founded, others were doomed from the start.

Here, based on my observations, is my six-step plan to for success and impact. 

First, the issue. It's got to be something which provokes a simple emotion in your readers - fear, anger, compassion, admiration, hilarity, charity, or a combination of those

Second, the name. Say what is in the tin. Avoid puns, flights of fancy, literary flourishes. You are at that juncture where journalism meets politics and marketing. So bring out your secret marketeer. Say clearly what it is. Be concise and catchy. 

Third, mechanics. Work out what you can realistically do. 

Fourth, the campaign launch. Announce what it is. Explain your reasons, strategy and demands. Then - importantly - develop your case through individual human stories.

Fifth, action stations. While maintaining relentless editorial pressure, give your backing to supplementary activities - demos, lobbying, annoying the council and MPs, holding meetings, drawing up petitions, further shocking revelations and anything else this side of legal. Don't be discouraged by counter attacks. Stick to your guns with the tenacity of Nick Davies and the Guardian. 

Sixth, Victory!

Here are two examples, from my humble experience. 

Issue: From letters and stories, it became clear to us that many new mothers felt depressed as they adjusted to being at home on their own all day.

Campaign Name: Take a Break’s Chums for Mums. 

Mechanics:  The magazine would enable mums to get in touch with one another through a computer data base, by town and region.

Launch: Individual mums described the problems that isolation had caused, from mild unhappiness to severe post natal depression, and that they sought contact with other women. Very dramatic and moving stories, with nice pictures. Perfectly tuned to the readership.

Action:  As the database filled with tens of thousands of names, we used these, with permission, to keep publishing a wide and varied flow of stories. We filled 40 pages of editorial, self-generated, with lots of mums and baby pictures.  Mums started setting up their own groups for coffee and day trips and it took on its own momentum.

Victory! We linked up with the Prime Minister and the Department of Health to make the campaign semi-official. It is still continuing, still providing copy, still keeping Take a Break involved with readers.

Issue:  Antisocial behaviour against ordinary women was being downplayed because, as a social category, they tended to be weak politically, poorly organised and easily ignored. 

Campaign Name: Take a Break’s Mums' Army. 

Mechanics: Set up a noisy, aggressive network to shame police and politicians.

Launch:  The issue was explained through individual mums, describing their persecution by thugs and yobs. The stories created outrage.

Action: Within a few days, we'd got 10,000 members. We wrote a booklet telling them how to campaign locally. We also registered it as a political party and put up council candidates. Mums’ Army got wide publicity, in the national and regional press, TV and radio, and numbers grew exponentially. We got more stories, filling 50 editorial pages, promoting the campaign and Take a Break simultaneously. 

Victory!  As these women found their voice, and started to unite, police and politicians realised they dare not let this issue slip down the agenda again. They began to accept their responsibility, change policy and come up with real solutions. There was a great improvement in many women's lives.

Other campaigns which worked for Take a Break show the value of getting the name right - Jobs For Mums, Coping With Chemo, Mastectomy Pride, Mums For Justice, Respect Our Kids, Breast Reduction Alliance (BRA), Justice For Holiday Sex Attack Victims, Women And War. 

Precise, catchy, concise.

At a glance, you know exactly what they stand for. Remember to buy the web address and set up a Facebook page. 

Campaigns also reach beyond your actual or perceived demographics. They are as good as advertising in persuading non-readers to sample your title. Unlike advertising, they are not just free but profit-generators. 

I write as a women's magazine journalist - for the last 20 years anyway - but the rules are universal. Try googling 'newspaper campaign' and you’ll get millions of results, from all over the world, about poverty, the environment, jobs, sex, anything. The South London Press wants to boost work experience for youngsters. Clare Sambrook wishes to end UK child detention. And - did Lord Beaverbrook really die? - the Daily Express wants us out of the EU. 

Campaigns were there at the beginning of the free press, with religious tracts and political pamphlets. And as newspapers accumulated readers, so their proprietors exercised their growing power, from the Crimean War to Northcliffe, through Cudlipp's fighting Daily Mirror of 50 years ago, to the Sunday Times's thalidomide exposes and, more recently, the Guardian's challenge to the press/political nexus.

While it is better to create your own campaign from scratch, it isn’t strictly necessary. You can jump aboard a rolling bandwagon - as the Sun did with Help for Heroes. A win-win.

Campaigns mean a lot to individual journalists. 

Many of us come into the business with a sense of idealism which continues to thrive against the commercial odds.

We make a Faustian pact in which we agree to do the routine dirty digging as long as sometimes we get to show our inner saintliness. 

Superficially, we despise worthiness, convinced that the secret idealist is more of a hidden preacher, inclined to drive readers away as much as attract them. But beneath the denials, way below the required scepticism of our trade, most of us want to do more than hack a phone to find out if Amy Childs has booked in for a vajazzle. 

We aspire to make a difference, to leave the world a tiny bit better than when we entered it. 

But, after the recent street riots, popular journalists should ask if  they have helped create a debased culture through some strands of newspaper and magazine sensationalism. Can we do better? Will editors and publishers permit it?

I note that Brunel University is launching the UK's first Master's degree in Campaigning Journalism. 

Perhaps the Fall of Murdoch will have liberated not just the populace in general but journalists in particular. . 

Mmm, there's a thought. Journalists' Lib. Sounds like a campaign coming on. 

* ARTICLE PUBLISHED PRESS GAZETTE SEPTEMBER 2011 shortly before the Leveson Inquiry began.