When your job is to manage the media and you resort to issuing direct threats – of the ‘my dad’s bigger than yours’ variety – because things aren’t going your way, you’ve already lost the argument. Intellectually. Ethically. Practically.
Emails leaked this week highlight how Guto Harri, the Mayor of London’s former communications chief, was seen to threaten the BBC with a ‘huge public fight’ if it aired an interview recorded with author Sonia Purnell discussing her unauthorised biography of the Mayor late last year.
The emails seem to suggest that the comms chief, a former BBC man himself, threatened to turn the newspapers and what he called “our good friends in Number 10” against the public service broadcaster if it failed to do as it was told.
Purnell, writing in the Guardian on the matter, claimed that other reporters were threatened with loss of access to the Mayor if they spoke to her, while a playwright advised that no London theatre would stage a production based on the book for fear of the City Hall reaction.
Either there was a systematic campaign mounted against her by City Hall or Purnell’s next book should be a conspiracy theory thriller.
Harri recently mounted a Boris bike and cycled the relatively short distance to Wapping where he has taken on the challenge of rebuilding the now dilapidated reputation of News International, publisher of the Sun, the Times and the new defunct News of the World.
From the vantage point of his new office in Wapping today, the “good friends in No 10” might be unnecessary as News International executives and Cabinet Ministers look to distance themselves from each other in the shadow of the Leveson enquiry into phone hacking.
Commenting on the leaked emails, Harri told the Guardian that: “It was my job at City Hall to ensure fair coverage for the mayoralty and I did what I could over four years to deliver that in a professional and courteous manner.’ He denied the reference to ‘good friends in No 10’ was a threat, calling it an expression of widely-held frustration about negative coverage by the BBC.
Presumably the commitment to impartiality enshrined in the BBC’s charter, a feature of the corporation during his time there, ended only after his departure in 2007?
The role of the comms dept is to work with the media, to help them understand the facts, the context and the background to a story to ensure that the clients or employer is well and fairly represented. I have yet to see a job description for a communications director that required censorship skills.
The BBC reporter who received the original ‘threatening’ email is William Walden, then the BBC’s Westminster news editor. Today, he is Boris Johnson’s new director of communications. The scriptwriters of Spin City would surely have rejected the plot as too implausible.