Dirty tricks and special advisers

14 Apr

A political PR story has people talking. I'll limit myself to four observations:

  1. The blogging dimension has been overstated. Political PR has often been conducted through leaks (known as non-attributable briefings), so there's nothing fundamentally new in the use of blogs to disseminate (mis)information. What's new in that blogging appears to favour opposition voices in a more pronounced way than happens with the traditional media, hence the desperate tactics from government advisers that have been exposed by this story.
  2. It's a truism that Conservative politicians are vulnerable to sex scandals while Labour politicians are vulnerable over money. In a recession, the public seems more shocked by stories of bath plugs on expenses than allegations of sexual misconduct.
  3. There are rules governing the party political activities of civil servants. Why not enforce the existing rules before rushing to create new ones?
  4. There are such strong practical grounds for rejecting dirty tricks campaigns that we don't even need to start discussing principles. 'Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.' There is a danger that no normal people will choose to enter political life, knowing the scrutiny it will bring on their families and on their past lives. David Cameron was right to refuse to give a direct answer to the question about drugs; public figures deserve some privacy. Besides, what's the point of principles if we don't stand by them? Sure, it's wrong to lie… Except when lying, even black propaganda, is the lesser of two evils – as was surely the case with the wartime Special Operations Executive. So let's stick to the practical point: dirty tricks campaigns are wrong because they're so often ineffectice and counter-productive. 

Surprisingly, the business world appears in this regard to be a more genteel place than politics. I suspect this is because in business there's very rarely a simple binary choice as there so often is in democratic politics. And the principle of denying your competitors free publicity means that direct attacks tend not to be used.

In reality, politicians have much in common with each other and often behave with remarkable restraint and dignity. For me, the highlight of the US presidential election did not directly involve the successful candidate. In a campaign walkabout, John McCain was approached by a woman who suggested that Barack Obama did not deserve support because he was an Arab. 'No ma'am, he is a decent family man and citizen.' The right thing to do (in terms of winning) might have involved playing the race card; McCain did the right thing for democratic politics.

One Response to “Dirty tricks and special advisers”

  1. Kevin O'Hare 15/04/2009 at 6:48 pm #

    McBride failed to remember that the same professional standards are expected of him whether he was writing emails or giving official comments. There are times when the best communication is no communication at all; he seems to have forgotten that simeple rule. How PR professionals are seen and judged by the public is always by the worst examples. His emails would have led to him being sacked even if he had been the most junior office worker, never mind his special status at No 10, with the ear of the prime minister. His behaviour shows that he did not deserve that status. His failure will reflect on all PRs whether they like it or not.

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