Categories: Crisis management / Political spin

11 May 2009

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Gurkhas special-pleading? No thanks, Joanna

There’s no doubt that Joanna Lumley is a great PR campaigner for the Gurkhas. However last week’s farcical impromptu negotiations with Phil Woolas, the Immigration Minister, outside a TV studio turned me against her almost as vehemently as I’m against New Labour. 

Whatever happened to due process? On-the-spot government surrounded by unelected opponents and their friendly media is not democracy in action. It actually undermines the image and authority of elected representatives. Though, admittedly, one should blame Woolas and Prime Minister Brown, not Lumley for that.

Dominic Lawson usefully reminded us in The Sunday Times yesterday of Gordon’s Brown’s comment of just over one year ago, “We’re moving away from this period when, if you like, celebrity matters – people are moving away from that”.

Phil Woolas lowered the dignity of Parliamentary democracy when he seemed to formulate government policy as he groveled in a corridor to Joanna Lumley.

We don’t know what the upshot will be. Woolas’ response to being hijacked was almost dignified and he may have done more stonewalling than waffling. There’s a good chance good sense will prevail and won’t necessarily make Ms Lumley a happy bunny.

Oddly but not untypically, the Tories got this issue round their necks. Their over-excitement over this campaign was a hostage to fortune.

Governments have to make unpopular policy decisions. The next Tory government will have to implement many controversial policies to sort out the mess New Labour created. When they do, the Tories will face an army of special-pleaders spearheaded by celebrities just as good-looking and popular as Joanna Lumley.

I have sympathy for the Gurkhas. But I also know that immigration is a complex issue. They signed contracts which did not include British citizenship as part of the bargain. Charles Moore, in the Spectactor, was on-point as so often. He noted that the Gurkhas are merceneraries, and said he implied no criticism in the job description but it did rather militate against sentimentality.

Anyway, the ins and outs of the issue do not concern me here.

I do advocate, however, that we should publicly resist the “Lumley Effect”. Special pleading always has its ugly and undemocratic – ultimately its unfair – side. Give in to it and it’s like giving in to hostage-taking or blackmail. Yield too often and nothing will ever get done by any government.

As PR professionals we should not celebrate a campaign just because it was effective. We should always wonder whether the quality of argument has been served. We ought to remember the toughness of Dominic Lawson’s cleverly composed point that:

In the end, political arguments should be judged entirely on the merits of the case, rather than by the relative beauty, charm or fame of the proponents. It will never happen, of course.

If anybody ever doubted the power, potential and influence of PR – but also the baleful effects of some PR – they need only study Joanne Lumley’s campaign on behalf of the Gurkhas.

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