The media relations concept of “burying bad news” entered the public consciousness after the 9/11 attacks – when a UK Labour Government spin doctor watched the jets flying into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and blithely banged off an email to colleagues reading: “It’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.”
Unfortunately for her, the email was leaked to the media and “good day to bury bad news” stories appeared in the national press and the crass phrase stuck in people’s memory.
It was the beginning of the end of that hapless media relations guru’s career in government communications.However, what she had been attempting was really an ill-judged and extreme version of what government PR people and spin doctors do constantly: timing announcements to achieve either the maximum publicity for good news or the minimum publicity (preferably none) for bad news.
It is about assessing the national news agenda at a given moment in time and deciding how your story is going to play.
If it is good for your side, you want it writ large. But if it’s bad for your side but still needs to be released, you don’t want it reported at all.
When a media relations special adviser’s role is to make the party in power look as angelic as possible, you can understand why she or he resorts to playing the news agenda, trying to get great coverage for, say, her minister’s sexy but daft new policy or to slip out embarrassing news about the railways in a way deliberately designed to turn off reporters, news editors and copytasters (the newsdesk or production journalists who decide which stories of interest).
The problem with this, of course, is that it means the public ends up listening to BBC TV journalists interviewing each other ad nauseum about the latest overblown idea to come out of Number 10 or Whitehall, while important stories impacting on millions of citizens go under-reported or simply unreported.
What is a workaday tactic for crisis management and crisis communication by government spin doctors does our democracy and our country no favours.
The biggest example of this in recent times is Brexit. The process of the UK leaving the European Union is clearly a massive story of huge importance. The public, the media and politicians are as one on that.
However, a lot of other issues are also going on: the crisis in and gradual collapse of the National Health Service (NHS) as we know it, the disgraceful state of our railways and the appalling mismanagement of a major national railway companies to the detriment of commuters and business, and the fact that most crimes are no longer investigated by the police who are increasingly failing in their duty to the people of Britain, to name but three.Of course, there is some reportage of these issues but, time and time again, the Government and political classes draw the fickle media’s attention back to Brexit, as if it is the only show in town.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s Government even managed to put a Brexit spin on the security situation, suggesting to the European Union that a no-deal break with Britain would hurt the EU in the fight against terrorism. A cynical approach! Some things should be too important to use as Brexit gambling chips.
For the Government, burying bad news is all about distraction. If journalists can be distracted with a nice juicy Brexit line, why would they look too closely at the failing hospitals, cancelled trains or uninvestigated crime?
Take the recent story about Gibraltar. It is ridiculous to suggest that Brexit will have an impact on the future sovereignty of the Rock. The EU guidelines ruled that out. However, the media needed little encouragement to whisk around 35 words on the subject in the EU Brexit negotiation guideline into an over-risen souffle of a story – with the blessing of the Government.
Media Relations Gone Bonkers
What was former Tory leader Michael Howard – now Lord Howard – doing when he said Theresa May would show the same resolve in defending Gibraltar from Spain as Margaret Thatcher did in wrestling the Falklands back from Argentina? This was media relations gone bonkers – the opposite of crisis communication, creating a crisis when no crisis previously existed!
Moreover, Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon was reported as saying the UK would go “all the way” to keep Gibraltar out of Spain’s hands.
Was the cackhanded work of Government media relations special advisers behind this early silly season story?
Let’s keep a clear head about this. Spain is our Nato ally. Brexit has nothing to do with Gibraltar’s sovereignty. The UK and Spain are not going to war with each other.It is dangerous to play such political media relations games. They might be amusing in the Westminster Village but outside of that toxic bubble, people get hurt.
The Sun newspaper: Spanish are ‘donkey rogerers’
When a foreigner is brutally beaten to within an inch of his life on a London street by a 20-strong mob of thugs, is it really sensible to be calling the Spanish “donkey rogerers”, as columnist Kelvin MacKenzie did in The Sun newspaper?
Brexit has already inspired the rise of xenophobia and hate-crime in the UK, and there are barking-mad people out there who’d love to see the democratic decision to break economically from our European neighbours end in an all-out war.
As Kelvin MacKenzie, one of the few columnists sufficiently in touch with badly tattooed White Van Man to predict that Britain would vote to leave the EU, wrote: “I have already gone from jaw-jaw to war-war.”
Yes, Kelvin, just like the Glory Gotcha! Falklands glory days again!
It made me think that public deception of the public comes in many forms.
Incidentally, an interesting documentary on James ‘The Amazing’ Randi, entitled An Honest Liar, was screened this week on BBC4. It made the point that there is a difference between deceiving to defraud and deceiving to reveal.
The diminutive Randi was a brilliant magician and escapolologist in the vein of Harry Houdini but, at the age of 55, he retired from that way of life to devote himself to exposing magicians such as the Israeli entertainer Uri Geller who passed himself off as a psychic.
What the truth-seeking James Randi failed to understand was that the public did not care a fig if Uri Geller was a phoney or not. Whether psychic or magician, they loved the Uri Geller show.
The Amazing Randi was an amazing PR man for Uri Geller, raising his profile until every TV show wanted him and performance tickets sold like hot cakes.
In journalism, investigative reporters will often use deception – false names and claims etcetera – to help them expose a deceiver such as a conman or a fraudulent or corrupt politician.
The reporters would argue that the ends justify the means and say that without the deception, they would not get their story – and the wrongdoing would not be exposed and would continue.
By the same token, is it right for Government spin doctors to deceive the public to keep what they consider bad news out of media coverage?
Is it right for the media to deceive the public by making far more of a statement, like as the EU one on Gibraltar, than is justified, throwing in a xenophobic insult for good measure at the extreme end of the MacKenziesque edge of the spectrum?
The Britain I see around me every day is sleepwalking to disaster. It is horrible to witness. Yet all we hear about is: Brexit, Brexit, Brexit.
* This article is purely the view of the author who is an expert in crisis communication and media relations training.