Media: The euro spin-doctor with a mission impossible

A former financial journalist must convince his sceptical colleagues of the euro's worth.
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The Independent Culture
Simon Buckby is remarkably upbeat for somebody a week into the job of persuading Britain to love the euro. The new campaigns director of Britain in Europe, the cross party pro-euro coalition, has already had a taste of the sort of press he himself will face. The former social affairs correspondent of the Financial Times, his own newspaper described him last week as nerdish, a "well-programmed android" and a "young, more idealistic Dalek".

Strewth! If that is the FT's assessment, what will the vicious euro-sceptic press make of him?

The Dalek image can only be intended as a reference to Mr Buckby's previous incarnation as a strategist at New Labour's Millbank headquarters during the 1997 general election campaign. He led the party's advertising team and also dreamt up the pledge card, the credit card-sized list of five election promises. The Millbank experience taught him the classic skills of rebuttal, pre-buttal and what he describes as "assertive" relationships with journalists.

More important, for someone whose jobs in journalism have been with the BBC and FT, it widened his focus from the navel-gazing of the elite echelons of the media. "The polls show that about 15 per cent of people are vocal one way or the other on the euro. The other 85 per cent are open minded," he says.

To get its message across to the great majority, Britain in Europe will look beyond the national press, where most newspapers have entrenched positions, to TV and radio, to free sheets, women's and lifestyle magazines, the ethnic and local press, and any other vehicles he can think of.

Yet it is bound to be an uphill struggle. At least since the elections for the European Parliament in June the agenda has been set by the euro- sceptic press. Mr Buckby's own decision to postpone the official launch of Britain in Europe's campaign until September has been portrayed as another sign of weakness and disarray in the pro-euro camp. "We're engaged in a long battle," he says. "This is not a make or break period. I made a decision to postpone the launch so that we could have all our ducks in a row."

That includes moving offices, installing ISDN lines and setting up a press briefing room during the summer. Getting all the organisational detail right is the first task, and clearly another important Millbank lesson.

The next task is to start trying to shift the perception among opinion formers that the euro is a bad news story. "We will stop the free run our opponents have enjoyed," Mr Buckby promises. But he takes care not to raise expectations of a dramatic shift in opinion, comparing his job to the slow and delicate task of turning around a supertanker. It cannot be helpful to the director of the pro-euro campaign to have to respect the delicacies of a Government not prepared to give its unequivocal backing to the single currency. Earlier this month it was reported that the Prime Minister had only agreed to appear on the Britain in Europe platform if the campaign emphasised that it was pro-Europe rather than simply pro- single currency. Had the campaign been watered down at all in return for some prime ministerial support? Mr Buckby replies that the campaign is a broad coalition, including senior representatives of all three main parties. If it is not government policy to join the euro now - but rather to prepare and decide later - then that is what the government will support. "We are campaigning to maintain a credible option for Britain to join a successful single currency," he says. That includes the European reform agenda. Indeed, he argues that the breadth of support for the campaign is, on the contrary, a strength.

"We are about to unveil an amazing historical coalition," Mr Buckby says enthusiastically. The Prime Minister, the former Conservative Deputy Prime Minister and the Chancellor and the leader of the Liberal Democrats will appear on the same platform, along with leaders of many big companies and trades union leaders. "These are all the natural leaders of that open- minded 85 per cent," he says.

Certainly, as a journalist on the receiving end of both campaigns, I can only agree that Britain in Europe has to pep up its administration and take some initiative. It seems harsh to blame the Government for failing to set a positive pro-euro agenda if the principal pro-euro campaign group has also been inactive to the point of invisibility. One reason it was possible for the euro-sceptic press to dominate the agenda so entirely during the June election campaign was the absence of any other agenda. Neither the Government, nor Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke, would take the initiative, for different reasons; but euro campaigners failed to do so too.

Mr Buckby, who started his career at the BMP advertising agency, promises that this will change - he has all sorts up his sleeve. What's more, he believes it really matters.

"Britain's relations with Europe are the most important political issue of the latter half of the 20th century and the first half of the 21st," he says. It's all most un-Dalek-like.

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