Fox News called last night, wanting an opinion on the collapse of the BBC. I told them no collapse had happened, so they terminated the interview, thanked me for my time and rang off. Clearly it didn’t suit their agenda, which was to gloat over the supposed decline of a once-great news-gathering institution.
When The Sun leaked the story, so utterly fortuitously, it set the PR agenda in favour of its closest friend, Tony Blair. It pre-empted measured analysis of Hutton’s report by running the headline conclusions before anyone else had studied the small print, and so established a diversionary strand of media debate. In these post-Gilligan days, we have to say that the leak was not a piece of Downing Street PR. However, it would be the kind of thing that a government’s PR advisers might consider doing to muddy the trickiest of waters, should a government find itself mired in difficulty. In truth, if it were to have been consciously adopted, this tactic – which a less principled government might have considered adopting – would have failed. The leak deepens public distrust of the entire process.
When any corporation faces severe criticism of its actions, those at the top should shoulder responsibility and resign. Gavyn Davies departed on Wednesday, with a mild snipe at his critics, and on Thursday Greg Dyke announced his resignation and faced the music with dignity, honesty and good humour. They both acted honourably. Those rail company bosses and cabinet ministers (amongst others) who are still happily installed in office should pause to reflect on their own past conduct in times of corporate or departmental crisis. In the dim and distant past – forgive me if memory fails – I think there was a small matter of flak jackets. Did Geoff Hoon resign?
David Kelly was a tragic casualty of a journalist’s attempt to wade through a swamp of disinformation and (un)intelligence, and a belligerent government’s incompetent handling of the release of his name. Andrew Gilligan is a journalist who cocked up because he had a strong story, but then let his tongue run away with him in one interview, later corrected. The famous US publicist Jim Moran once said “there is nothing more dismal than a fact” It’s usually the PR man who lets his or her enthusiasm run away with the killer hook. Perhaps Gilligan should have studied the bible “Great Mistakes in PR and How to Retrain for Another Career.”
The BBC is an institution that momentarily lost its corporate head and acted rashly and improperly in the face of vitriolic, panicked attacks from a hypersensitive indecisive government. The corporation then became wholly entrenched in maintaining a position that was only partially tenable. If Dyke had back-tracked and apologised at the time, maybe the great populist would still be in a job. Who gave that crucial PR council?
It’s perfectly reasonable to ask that the BBC should set its house in order to ensure that such a situation doesn’t arise again, and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that those at the head of the organisation should resign. There is no doubt that the BBC has embarked on a comprehensive internal review, and is already implementing changes, and now that Davies and Dyke have left, the corporation has fulfilled its immediate obligations swiftly, efficiently and with decency. It has acknowledged that its actions were wrong, and it has apologised.
The enquiry was contrived to avoid the substantive issue by focusing on the question of who was culpable for the leak that allegedly precipitated Dr.Kelly’s decision to take his own life. By exonerating the government, and pillorying the BBC, it has redoubled public and media concern about the report’s dismal intelligence and its persuasive and crucial change of emphasis which hardened the case for war. After all, the shift from “may be” to “is” able to deploy weapons of mass destruction – from the hypothetical to the absolute – is no small matter.
There is minimal evidence that the WMDs were ever there. We were patently mis-sold a deeply unpopular war on the back of flawed reports based on inaccurate intelligence that exaggerated the scale and immediacy of the threat posed by Saddam. Dr.Kelly’s death is to be deeply lamented, but the deaths of thousands of troops and civilians are more lamentable still.
Both British and American administrations have back-tracked since the war. The pre-war case was weapons: they exist, we definitely know they’re there, and they pose a real and present threat. The post-war case shifted via a steady semantic creep. It was a “weapons programme”; next, Saddam had “the components necessary to create a weapons programme”; next, it was documents suggesting the possibility of a weapons programme. What next? Two men had a chat in a café and said they’d heard about something called a weapon that might be worth looking into sometime? Or maybe we should just shift the goal posts entirely and say, what the hell, even if none of this is true, Saddam was a dangerous ruthless dictator and we needed to get rid of him anyway? That shift has already started.
Hutton has initially raised a furore about the BBC. In PR terms the BBC has handled the crisis well. In truth it can’t slip up in its darkest hour. It has accepted responsibility, and it has acted to correct its mistakes. Now the focus moves to an insufferably smug Prime Minister and a deeply distrusted government that, in the space of just 24 hours has blithely overturned a solemn election promise not to introduce top up fees, and then finds itself utterly outraged at the suggestion that it could have lied or acted improperly over the formulation of the Iraq dossier. The brazenness is staggering.
Of course, another diversionary horse is off and running in the shape of “who leaked Hutton?” but surely the media is wising up to this particular game. Thunderous government statements of propriety are beginning to pall. Blair’s credibility is still in need of a boil wash. The rising tide of feeling is that whilst he may be exonerated of wrong-doing, he did it anyway. That’s really not a healthy place to be.
Diversionary tactics, broken promises, ducked issues: it’s difficult to craft a positive image when you commit to such a position. Add to that a swaggering triumphalism, and you have a PR disaster in the making. But who cares? The opposition has not raised its game over the last few days, Howard has been on the back foot avoiding key media interviews and he has signally failed to earn some pr points. It leaves the electorate with little option, even though it has been treated with such atrocious and patronising contempt throughout this whole process.
There is one critical point that emerges from this, and it is this: who is the public more inclined to believe? Journalists such as Jeremy Paxman and John Humphreys, or a Machiavellian government and its well-oiled PR machine? Journalists often get a bad press, sometimes rightly so, but their levels of self-interest are far and away outstripped by those who determine government policy and presentation, and the public knows it. The public knows that the BBC slipped from its oft-quoted status as the gold standard of news journalism. The public also knows that in its determination to reclaim its status, it will redouble its efforts to act with integrity and propriety. Its trustworthiness will actually be enhanced, after all the sound and fury of current events have subsided.
But the government? It never changes. All governments are duplicitous – it’s the nature of the beast. In which case, I suppose, you could say that the conduct and conclusions of the Hutton enquiry reveal that this particular government is one of the finest examples of the species this country has ever bred.