I’ve had remarkably few ‘altercations’ with journalists during my 20 year career in communications – the odd ‘agree to disagree’ discussion, but only one screaming match.
A reporter from the Evening Standard asked whether my then employer’s pension was under-funded (where the value of cash and investments in the fund is lower than the liabilities). I advised him that a formal review had been commissioned and the answer would be known a few months later. This was going to be too late for a reporter who needed to stand up an already written story. “Can you confirm that the fund could be in deficit,” he asked.
“The fund could be in surplus or it could be in deficit – we won’t know until the auditors complete their review,” was my response. The headline on the front page of the Evening Standard’s (then pink) business pages that afternoon was more definitive than that. I called to correct his misunderstanding and a game of ‘he said, she said’ followed. I blew a fuse and called his editor to ask why he’d hired a gambler to play the role of a reporter. The gambler’s fuse exploded too. It all went south from there.
With everyone’s fuses fried, it became a dark afternoon. I had to fend off other reporters and institutional investors, not to mention a worried pension trustee and an irritated CFO. But no one died and an after-work drink with the business editor restored serenity. The world moved on.
My pension fund tiff was put in perspective at the Frontline Club recently when I went to hear Kevin Marsh, former editor of Radio 4’s Today Programme, talk about Stumbling over Truth, his new book detailing the story of WMD, the Iraq War, the Hutton Enquiry, the now famously ‘sexed-up’ dossier and the tragic death of Dr David Kelly from Marsh’s perspective.
Marsh was the Today programme editor who put Andrew Gilligan, then the BBC’s Defence and Diplomatic correspondent, on air to first raise the allegation that the dossier had been ‘sexed-up’. Dr Kelly, it turned out, had been Gilligan’s source.
For those with an interest in the story that polarised a nation and led, ultimately, to Blair’s political downfall, the book is required reading. Despite his central role in the events, Lord Hutton never called Kevin Marsh to give evidence. This is the first time Marsh has told his side of the story that cost Gavyn Davis, then chairman of the BBC, and Greg Dyke, the corporation’s director general, their jobs.
But the book is also Marsh’s memoir of New Labour’s communications strategy to ‘create the truth’ during Tony Blair’s premiership. Creating the Truth was a phrase coined by Peter Mandleson and a strategy implemented by Alastair Campbell.
Marsh details some of the lengths the then Labour Government went to in its attempt to create and control the news agenda. As a communications professional, it makes uncomfortable reading as Marsh describes the daily battle for supremacy and to get a message across.
The book is a fascinating insight into the challenges between authority and those tasked with holding that authority to account. No communications department, not even the Government, has the right to ride roughshod over the media in a democratic society.
Thankfully, the vast majority of us who work in communications will never have to deal with issues and situations that have such gravity, such far-reaching implications as those faced by Downing Street or the BBC during the Iraq War and it’s aftermath.
That said, Marsh’s book – perhaps unintentionally – is a salutary lesson in the inherent dangers of trying to over-spin or over-sell a story, or in trying to ‘control’ the agenda.