By Richard D North
The big picture
Anyone who cares about Britain, its government and its wider official culture is shaken and stirred by recent media storms. PR professionals ought to be a great position to understand what’s been going on. After all, they are media-obsessed, and narratives and messaging are at the heart of the problem faced by our institutions.
The people at the top of our society need to understand far better than they do that they are in the grip of crappy narratives. Some are of their own making; others are thrust on them. It is too little realised that when they slip up, the problem is often that they have been distracted from reality by phantasms they have aimed to promote or preserve or they have been shafted by phantasms the malicious foist on them. The bellowing of the media amplifies these ghosts so they become the new reality, and a very loud one.
The main point of what follows is to show that there is a very wide – a post modern – conspiracy of the fanciful and that we now need to cultivate real leadership, and a taste for reality. It is almost as important to note that the great difficulty for those running anything now is that nearly everyone yearns for an ideal which they mostly (except in their own area of operations) affect to despise: that there be a few good people in charge.
The problem discussed here is mostly official, though firms need to learn to describe themselves more robustly too. Still, though it’s easy to bemoan the cupidity and venality of the people who run our capitalism, at least they fell prey to the greed we employ them for. Actually, unless they are in retail, they have also shown a nearly sublime indifference to the media storm around them.
The media is more or less blameless: for all its power, it is as bad and useless as its audiences demand. At the high end, its mistakes are mostly intellectual. Even the commercial gutter press has only been horrible in an exaggerated version of its own, particular ancient habits: the sole real surprise has been the way its boss-class looks and sounds so like that of other bureaucracies.
The people who run the police, the BBC, our Civil Service, quite a few junior politicians and the most recent three Prime Ministers, have been more depressing. They have seemed willing to behave out of character and betray the core traditions of their offices. And of course, their prat-falls often involved the media. Our power-merchants seemed, so often, like moths to the flame.
Because Britain is almost always the test-bed for the next cultural revolution, I am quite inclined to think our current difficulties are not terminal: they are – with luck – a sign of growing pains as our governing class adjusts to new forms of excellence and accountability. Of course they face the difficulty that modern politics and bureaucracy begin with a lie: they have to pretend to despise themselves for being elitist.
How PR could have helped
Good public relations mostly reminds people that the truth will out. Bankers couldn’t fix Libor in private; parliamentary expenses frauds were bound to leak; BBC journalists wouldn’t suppress their own story; the Downing Street CCTV would say something about Plebgate. But of course it is the second truth of PR that the facts will often get bent out of shape before they get straightened out, if they ever do. MPs might have guessed that a few expenses frauds would be made to characterise their entire rather mean allowance system; the BBC that it would be forgotten that it was perhaps only scrupulous to be wary of broadcasting the Savile allegations; News International that phone hacking was a pretty ordinary matter of criminality, for all that it exploded a culture war. Even so, much of what unfolded was avoidable. An old, wise PR could also stress that every malfeasance would feed into a separate and an often phoney meta-narrative. That’s sod’s law and will take decades of boring probity to undo.
A sophisticated PR could have told the highest echelons of our political class that sooner or later, those who are in thrall to narrative and to media management will be portrayed as empty vessels. To an important extent, that at least will be an accurate portrayal.
Life at the top: Political rot
Let’s see where we have been. For a decade or so we witnessed a sort of political melt-down, and it derived from the way politicians capitulated to the media. Messrs Blair, Blair and Cameron in their different ways were governed by their media operations. Tony Blair believed that his New Labour creation would be stillborn without maximum story-control. He did not realise, or didn’t care, that he wasn’t writing the script; the scripts – over the years he tried several – were writing him. Gordon Brown seems to have believed himself immunised from ordinary considerations by having been the son of the manse. David Cameron stayed a little more rooted in the reality community, but he understood that where Labour had had to bury socialism, the Tories had to bury nastiness. He made the mistake of thinking it wise to bury the whole animal, just to be sure. He took the enormous risk of being a blank. In both cases, the new total politics – the belief in politics as three parts narrative to one part government – seemed to have left too little energy or oxygen for the wider body politic. The main character of Blairism has turned out to be vacuity, relieved only by a scatter of initiatives, sustained spending, and – amazingly – war. Cameronism may turn out to be a very un-Tory Omnishambles, relieved only by a certain economic sternness and rationalised by the inevitable fudged murkiness of coalition. (The combined, valuable legacy of these two smooth – rather opaque – men may well be to have found the keys to John Major’s country at ease with itself.)
The central paradox is that the masters of narrative seem to have been enfeebled by their willingness to take the media so seriously. Luckily, the dominance of narrative will probably implode. It embodies tendencies which have proved close to ruinous to governance, a matter few politicians care about until near retirement. But media-obsession has been shown to damage political reputations quite quickly, and that sort of thing matters far more urgently to the cleverest practitioners. Already some young political stars seem to be learning how to do their proper thing. Peter Oborne has often remarked that in modern Britain we see a professional political class. It is beginning to spawn some interesting types. The “intake of 2010” may turn out alright.
Life a little lower down: institutional meltdown
It is less clear that a new generation of administrators have found ways of expressing themselves and explaining how they want to work. There is a post-Thatcher, Blairite administrative class of apparatchiks which poses great difficulties. Some of the members of the “quangocracy” figure in Quentin Letts’s Fifty People Who Buggered-up Britain, and he was too unkind about them. Still, his point is well-made: To be amongst the modern nomenklatura is to have proved oneself adapt at a certain sort of PC script, all about inclusivity and openness. Cultural bureaucrats especially are adept at a trahison des clercs, which sees e metropolitan elite casually trashing culture in the name of accessibility. Nearly everywhere, behind a façade of populism, we find smooth operators, often with a large arrogance only slightly hidden by practiced dissembling. Onora O’Neill is surely right to point to what she calls the “perversions of trust”: mantras of transparency, and even its fetishistic practice, do not guarantee that trust will emerge – or is even seriously intended. People rely on a reading of character as the best guarantee of trust-worthiness: this is the oddly personal element in professions and institutions and talking to a script seldom reassures people that it is in place.
At the very top now we seem to miss that curious mixture of savviness, clubbability and honour which once glued things together, and rooted them, and not always in a good way. Instead we have hyper-networkers who are schooled in a special sort of correct thought and behaviour. They are compliant and understand compliance. We have swapped one form of conformism (one forged in the Empire, warfare and the Classics) and substituted it for another (cooked up in multiculturalism, seminars and Channel 4). To a large extent, to run a public institution one must first exude a victim-orientated liberalism and then insist that there is wisdom in crowds.
The highest strata of the Civil Service faced a special difficulty. They were bound to be in turmoil as Whitehall shifted from being a provider to framing itself as a facilitator. The old governance of Pall Mall has become The Archipelago State. The Civil Service was, in theory, scrapping itself in an orgy of outsourcing and devolution. Its most senior people were also prepared to sacrifice long-standing, workable traditions of independence because they believed – with their political masters – that there was no alternative to running government from Message Central in Number 10. One after the other, four retired Cabinet Secretaries have bemoaned this tendency, seeming to forget they had been the gate-keepers who sold the pass.
The curious life and death of The Establishment
I am not unduly nostalgic about our old bureaucracies. Misplaced loyalty to class or organisation; a dislike of rocked boats; an acceptance of convention; a toleration of general uselessness: for much of the 20th Century these played their part in how things were run. Failures were often covered up, at least for a while. People suffered because of the discrete charms of the bourgeois.
In many ways, schools, hospitals, GP surgeries, law courts, police stations (and the backs of police vans) and the BBC are probably better run than they used to be. Maybe even children’s and old people’s homes, and welfare offices, are too. (The terrible press they get shouldn’t be our guide to their condition.) Affluence, media assertiveness and performance monitoring have combined with increased education to make this country quite a happy and successful place.
We should not trash the past, though. There never was a British Establishment in quite the way that is often supposed and much of our erstwhile elitism was public-spirited. Top People were, anyway, prone to promote their own mythologies. The liberal journalist Anthony Sampson, I am afraid, only had to amplify their own story to go on to peddle the view that the country was ruled by networks bound together by Old School ties, and by Varsity cliques, which were the creatures of an upper middle class. Just as things in the real world were changing fast, his “Anatomy of Britain” books fed into a older story of decline, ossification and snobbishness which nested nicely with the Beyond the Fringe, TW3, Fortune and Bird satire industry of the time. It has morphed into the near-monopoly of the cynical pseudo-dissidence of Have I Got News For You. The misreading of class changes was threaded through Yes, Minister, the TV show which enshrined, with perfect mis-timing, the idea of an unaccountable administrative elite just as the Civil Service was in fact ceding power to the politicians and the media.
These tropes were always sloppy and misleading and are now importantly redundant. But they remain much more powerful as myths now than they ever were as facts. We can see this in the easy assumption that the Tories are toffs and thus out of touch. This is a glamorous classed-up version of the general view that politicians from whatever sort of estate are out for themselves. Never mind that too many of them have become constituent-obsessed social workers and fixers, as James Gray, MP has had the courage to point out: for now, the dominant image is the old one.
Curious shifts in modern politics
Indeed, the political commentariat may be institutionally blind to the most important developments on their patch. Modern young MPs may have begun to abandon party loyalty and the top-down messaging and management of Blair and Cameron. There are signs of a greater independence of thought amongst some MPs, but it sometimes takes the form of a brutal populism. Indeed, there may even be a belief that social media embody some sort of unstoppable General Will. Michael Portillo seems sound on this stuff (“Cameron shouldn’t fear the EU wolf”, Financial Times, 14 December 2012). Ferdinand Mount’s The New Few argues, contrariwise, that oligarchic tendencies are growing in our political parties. I reply that if he is right that they are strong, it is worth noting that they are newly-embattled.
The modern narrative and the institution
The perennial sloppiness of the media and its audiences are in lock-step. Certain sorts of stories and narratives have acquired very serious clout. They have developed a life of their own. They are pushed and then volumised on many platforms, in a deafening unison. The common denominator is that all authority is always assumed to be self-serving. People in command or in a position to understand awkward facts feel powerless to resist the wall of half-truth and delusion. And yet, paradoxically, they often seek to manipulate what they rightly fear will become unmanageable.
This is where we see the paramount need for experience, savviness and character at the top our institutions. In the modern world, where public exposure is so brutal (and where old defensive mechanisms have decayed) it may be that only a robust honesty and a stroppy integrity will work, and only in the long – seldom the short – term. An institution can only gain trust when it proves itself honest and that will often require that its staff and leaders be bloody-minded.
To a surprising degree, institutions and especially government, will need to own its own truths. Pace Baronness O’Neill, the modern passion to submit oneself to independent monitoring or investigation or inquiry does not actually produce trust. It makes the public stir itself into the realisation that public bodies don’t even trust themselves to work out where their weaknesses lie and what their mistakes were. Indeed, they are blind to their own merits and unable to promote them. We may come to see that neither Chilcot nor Leveson could fulfill their billing: they were over-hyped blockbusters, full of shock and awe, but also a distraction from more quietly fixing some broken stuff we knew about already. One’s character – one’s reputation – cannot so easily be outsourced.
Hard case: the BBC
When the BBC pulled one Newsnight investigation (into Savile) and then botched another (into a very old story which had been often been travestied before), we saw that this great media institution had absolutely no idea how stories work. It was used to producing news items and reports and seems to have made the enormous mistake of thinking that in some sense it could control them. So, a Newsnight editor could shelve an investigation and neither he nor anyone else at the BBC seems to have realised what a powerful life of its own it would have. (David Elstein chronicles the events well here.)
In the Newsnight cases, and it applies a little in the case of the BBC 2006 climate change seminar story too, the BBC may have been foolish enough to think that its being nice and liberal and even well-behaved in its own way would be insulation against the horrors which the rest of the media – and its own staff – reserve for the unwashed of the right. I can easily see how all the BBC’s mistakes got made, and they weren’t the worst mistakes in the world by a long chalk. But they were all chronically naïve and unworldly.
Savvy PR would have told the BBC top brass that a Newsnight-shaped shit-storm was heading their way and no amount of guidelines and compliance would save them from it.
BBC staff weren’t wicked. But they were variously feeble. In both Newsnight disasters no-one seems to have been seriously concerned that for the BBC to do the right institutional thing, actual individuals had to become the grit in the oyster. One can except, perhaps, the Newsnight editor who started it all by thinking it might be wrong to trash the reputation of a dead man on what he thought was inadequate research. It is important to see that this editorial decision was not the serious mistake which got made. Curiously, it was as though no-one felt they had agency. No-one felt they owned the story. More prosaically, and in language older professionals would have understood, the absence of “grip” was centre stage.
Hard case: Plebgate
The Plebgate drama adds a further dimension to the story of how stories behave now. It has become a commonplace that everyone wants to star in one. Worse, people – including, perhaps, policemen or their union – who are close to media action become specially tempted by the possibility of manipulating a story to their own advantage. Of course, we don’t yet know where the blame lies for Plebgate. But it looks possible that some uniformed coppers and some Police Federation reps may have been seduced by class tropes, satirical riffs and techniques of spin. If so, they did not understand what they were doing. Goodness alone knows why the Met’s Commissioner responded to quite damning evidence by at first stressing that his concern was the welfare of his officers.
The police can’t really win in Plebgate. At worse, Andrew Mitchell can be accused of losing his cool with a job’s worth. At best, policemen with guns seem like big girls’ blouses. The BBC, likewise, can only watch and learn: its vaunted ethics of impartiality and public service may have transmogrified into unworldiness. It may need to abandon its Olympian superiority.
Some crucial people in the BBC and the police seem to have had the terrible PR training that afflicts most of our new ruling classes. That’s to say: they didn’t remember they are in a goldfish bowl. They seemed to forget that the truth or something quite like it would be bound to get out. They forgot the appalling behaviour of stories. They hadn’t been told: Don’t tweak these tigers; don’t imagine you can hang on to their tails.
If you can’t be savvy enough, and no-one ever is, the better thing is to be honourable or at least cheerfully adult. Oddly, that keeps you clear of many disasters as well as allowing you to sleep at night.