Media will eat itself.

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Here's a story so bizarre, so post-modern, that it's hard to believe Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci are not involved. They're not though, because this is something that has actually happened; it involves two major television stations attempting to tear a lump out of each other; a fake marketing event and a very popular social network.

At the time of writing, ITV is threatening to bring legal action against Channel 4. The former is seeking to prevent the latter from screening an episode of the investigative documentary strand 'Dispatches'.

As you may be aware, 'Dispatches' has a long and honourable history of exposing wrongdoing and corruption, in the UK and abroad - often using covert filming and other secretive techniques. Recently, the show brought to our attention the dreadful abuse of the elderly in care and the hugely depressing tendency for government ministers and MPs to accept bribes . However, the programme in question is something rather different.
According to two national newspapers, which have also allowed themselves to be drawn into this media bloodbath, the producers of 'Dispatches' constructed an event billed as a 'celebrity retreat' at a hotel in Manchester. Hosting the occasion was a high-end cosmetics company called Puttana Aziendale. This brand, like the event,  was entirely fictional and a creation of Dispatches (the Italian roughly translates as 'corporate whore').

Invited to this jamboree were 'Coronation Street' cast members, who were furnished with free 'Puttana' goodies. Some accounts state these products were nothing more than water. What seems beyond doubt is that Brooke Vincent (Sophie Webster), Catherine Tyldesley (Eva Price), and Shobna Gulati (Sunita Alahan) – posed with Puttana Aziendale shopping bags.

Nothing wrong with that. Actors are perfectly entitled to be photographed brandishing anything they like - even bottles of water they believe to be cosmetics. It's what is alleged to have happened next which has caused the top-level consternation. Because Dispatches claims the stars were then persuaded to promote the fake brand on their Twitter accounts.

Now the rules on this sort of celebrity social endorsement are predictably sketchy (the regulators being in a constant struggle to keep up with the speed of technology). But essentially, the ASA insist that a famous person accepting payment or reward for advertising tweets, must add the tag #ad or #promo to their message. Quite how much of a difference this makes, I wouldn't like to say - but that's what the rules say. 'Dispatches' are claiming the aforementioned soapsters failed to do this - ITV insist they did nothing wrong. Enter the lawyers.

It's a very strange turn of events, to be sure. But the whole sorry tale does raise some pertinent questions about the state of journalism, media competition and marketing.

Firstly, why did the editors at Channel Four feel the possibility that celebrities might be goaded into plugging goods or services on Twitter, to be so explosive that an undercover investigation was required? Surely, with our little planet in such a state of flux and catastrophe, there are bigger, more profound stories to chase. Or, to be more blunt, who gives a monkeys? Famous people are capable of being greedy and avaricious? Well, bless my soul - who'd have thought it?

Then there's the fact 'Dispatches' singled out 'Coronation Street' as their target. They could have gone after the glittering luvvies of 'Hollyoaks', but that's on Channel Four. It seems highly unlikely the producers didn't notice that 'Coronation Street' airs on the competitor's channel. Which opens up the notion that the whole sting was nothing more than an attempt to undermine ITV? Of course, I have no idea whether that was the intention - but it's certainly not impossible. And if that is the case, it doesn't do much to enhance the reputation of 'Dispatches' and its journalistic values.
Finally, we should consider the implications this has for the marketing and advertising business. I recently wrote a piece which revealed Khloe Kardashian is paid a sweet $13,0000 for each tweet she posts on behalf of her clients. I also made the point that, while this was a lovely little earner, it rather stripped the creativity out of digital advertising.  And I think this manufactured scandal simply hammers that home. When a TV star tweets to recommend a particular brand, do we really imagine they are doing it as a public service? Because nobody thinks David Beckham allows himself to snapped in his stuffed pants because it's his hobby - and it's hard to see the difference.

These tweets are much less powerful than the authorities (and 'Dispatches') imagine. And people off the telly making some pocket money or bagging some freebies for bunging a link on Twitter, isn't a national disgrace. Or even that interesting.

Ultimately, I'd guess sponsored tweeting will burn itself out. Followers of the celebrities involved will soon become sufficiently sceptical, cynical and bored to unfollow any sleb who becomes too mercenary. More imaginative use of the medium will be required if it is to have any traction as an advertising platform in the future.

As for 'Dispatches', the warring TV stations and their uppity threats, the only real winners will be the lawyers. Same as it ever was.

Magnus Shaw is a writer, blogger and consultant



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