Speech and drama.
The furore surrounding John Humphrys’ after-dinner comments demonstrates the continuing influence of former Blair aide Tim Allan, but it may also spur the fourth estate to take the fight to the government with a sharper edge, writes Mark Borkowski
He’s his own man, John Humphrys. One of the species of risk-taking, truth-seeking Big Beasts that the BBC used to breed by the score, but which are now dwindling to extinction. There are just handfuls left: Humphrys, Simpson, Paxman, Dimbles. That’s it.
So who would time it oh-so-carefully to hit the news between the end of the summer hols and the start of the conference season?
The man in the eye of the hurricane is none other than spinmeister Tim Allan, a former Blair communications adviser and ex-BskyB director of corporate communications – a fiercely loyal friend and trusted aide to Blair with all the modern hallmarks of a New Labour luvvie hailing from Surrey with a great Cambridge degree.
John Humphrys’ crucial error was to deliver his lighthearted speech back in June, just after the general election. The world was an entirely different place back in June. There’d been no bombings in London. New Orleans existed. The Australian cricket team was feared and full of optimism. Robin Cook was alive and well, or so we believed. It’s been a busy “quiet period”, all in all.
I have a cynical theory about the whole affair. The good old Beeb, still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from the turbulent times of Gilligan and Hutton, has inwardly been conditioned to stick slavishly to its purpose as a public service broadcaster providing impartial news coverage to the masses.
Stuck in a groove, it provides oxygen to those media-trained representatives of Blair’s corporate administration. The BBC knows all too well that even post-Campbell the fiercely combative Downing Street media team guard and protect their ministers from anything that might ruffle their cuddly voter-friendly facades.
A further motive is revenge on the BBC and its “John Humphrys attitude”. And, remember, revenge is a dish best served cold. Allan’s friends in 10 Downing Street – and he has many – want the presenter to be uncharacteristically cautious, more on the back foot, more respectful or more in fear of his job when next he starts interviewing cabinet ministers.
Will this create a septic paranoia that places them on the back foot for coming confrontations? What has happened in this questionable case is that there are a number of consequences. Certainly, Mr Allan’s consultancy, Portland, is far more famous than it was before.
Outing “Humphrys’ inappropriate and misguided remarks” has demonstrated not only Allan’s loyalty to the New Labour cause but demonstrates his undoubted influence, skill and nouse operating in the highest places.
Good PR folk are, frankly, thin on the ground and his qualities must surely bewitch anybody in the business world. I am sure the phone will be ringing off the hook from those who might want this formidable and connected player to be added as a outside consultant to an internal team.
There are juicy fees to be plundered in the world of blue chip public relations and the newsprint must be better and cheaper than any new business drive to CFOs and company chairman ambling back from their summer sojourns.
But the downside to the inner circle in the engine room of New Labour is that this affair could spur the rest of the fourth estate to take the fight to the government with a sharper edge. The BBC might lack confidence but the rest of 24/7 medialand would love to throw a counterpunch.
If there was any really lesson to learn from this affair, any PR professional should marvel at the speed that the BBC moved in resolving this issue.
There was no endless procession of executives bemoaning an internal process, but a quick verdict that removed any ability for the story to drag out and cause further pain.
I suspect there will be another meal served in the future and I hope Mr Allan isn’t the one who has to digest unpalatable fayre.