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A problem that PR cannot solve

06 May 2016

Tailspin: Labour travails on the front of The Daily Telegraph last Friday

Tailspin: Labour travails on the front of The Daily Telegraph last Friday

AN APOLOGY is due. I may have given the impression in earlier years that the press operations of the Church of England were uniquely incompetent. I now understand that I was wrong.

My earlier confidence was only a variation of the belief that the reporting of religion is uniquely inaccurate and ill-informed. In fact, it turns out that the worst-reported subject is the one you know and care about, whatever that is; and the worst press operation is whatever one you have to deal with.

The only exception to this, in my experience, is the Swedish government’s press service, which has always been imaginative and thoughtful. This has not had any noticeable impact on the accuracy of foreign reports on life in Sweden, which are, for the most part, dreadful.

So, when the wheels came off the Labour Party last week, it was easy to suppose that this was primarily a failure of public relations, or message discipline; or, contrariwise, that it was the result of a uniquely hostile press. But, actually, this is an example of the very limited ability of public relations — or “communications”, as it prefers to be known — to influence public opinion.

It is true that you can put lipstick on a pig, and then enhance the effect with blusher, eye shadow, and all the other arts of deception, until, in low light, and if the pig stays still, it will pass. But all these efforts are in vain when the pig breaks free. A lipsticked swine on the rampage looks even more porcine than a pig unadorned — and this is the problem with Ken Livingstone.

His belief that Hitler was on the side of Israel only makes sense against the background of a dehumanisation of Jews so all-pervasive as to be entirely invisible. The same is true of Jeremy Corbyn’s claim to have spent however many millennia he has been nourished in the Labour Party and never to have heard anything anti-Semitic.

Against such blind prejudice, the most gifted and charming spin doctor would labour in vain. As it happens, Seumas Milne is gifted and charming beyond the ordinary. I do not like his politics, but he is not stupid, ignorant, or idle. He must know perfectly well what has happened to his party’s reputation, and his leader’s, as a result of the anti-Semitism crisis, even if this knowledge is kept locked away like an asylum-seeker from the general public.

But he has still been powerless to stop the steady drumbeat of ghastly revelations which come at almost the worst possible time in the run-up to the local elections. Any competent spin doctor can deal with clients who get an urge to say what they mean — but is helpless against a client who means what he says.

 

ON A completely different plane, this is obviously the case with Pope Francis. His gestures are impressive because he means them; and, even if they are premeditated, the impulse obviously comes from him. His spontaneous chats with journalists on the papal plane have produced quotes that ran all round the world, in a way that the more considered (and considerable) documents of his papacy have not.

This is not because the long documents are not quotable, but because they are not personal in the same way.

Although there have been some instances of the Vatican spinning against the clear sense of the Pope’s statements, these have been neither frequent nor successful. You can twist the meaning of a document much more easily than that of a human being. This was, of course, Socrates’s argument against writing his teachings down; but I don’t suppose the consolations of philosophy will be much use to a beleaguered spin doctor this week.

 

EVERY other paper had Leicester City on the front page. It looked like an unmissable story. There was even a religious angle, in that the team’s success might have been the result of poor old Richard III’’s getting a proper burial in the cathedral. None the less, the Daily Mail ignored the whole story on the front and splashed with the unexpected death of its astrologer.

This turned out to be an interesting story. Not only was Jonathan Cainer clearly a natural religious entrepreneur — energetic, charismatic, and philoprogenitive (he had eight children) — he was also, for many years, the best-paid journalist in Britain. What seems to have been his secret was that the readers, about 12 million of them in various countries, all thought that he was talking to them personally.

I have no idea why anyone should have preferred his horoscopes to those of his rivals (or even The Onion). But, whatever he had, it worked. Leaving the money right out of it, is there any journalist working in Britain — even Jeremy Clarkson — whose byline is so valued by the readers?

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