Mark Leftly: High Speed 2 is going nowhere fast with its trainloads of spin doctors
Mark Leftly is political correspondent at The Independent on Sunday and associate business editor across the Independent titles. He writes a weekly column, Parliamentary Business, published on a Wednesday, that covers politics and the City. He is a multi-award winning reporter and was named Press Gazette's business magazine journalist of the year prior to joining The Independent on Sunday.
Friday 07 March 2014
Westminster Outlook In Plato at the Googleplex, the American novelist Rebecca Goldstein imagines the pre-eminent Ancient Greek philosopher alive today and his likely reactions to the internet, television and the modern world in general. He is sceptical of the benefits of neurological mapping, but becomes a big fan of his Google Chromebook.
Had Ms Goldstein brought the Athenian to the UK, she would surely have described Plato's disgust at what is happening at High Speed Two – not necessarily for the £42.6bn cost or the possible environmental impact of a railway that will carve through the English countryside to better link London with Birmingham and then the North, but for the obsession of HS2's masterminds with communications.
Plato detested the sophists, who taught the power of skilful, persuasive oratory, describing the "authentic sophist" as an expert in the "art of contradiction making" who "presents a shadow play of words".
Some historians refer to the sophists as being among the first masters of public relations, though it took another couple of millennia for the first professional agency, The Publicity Bureau in Boston, to crop up in 1900.
Less than a year ago, HS2 seemed doomed. The Independent on Sunday revealed that the initial proposed budget, £33bn, was not achievable, while former supporters of the project, like ex-chancellor Alistair Darling, started criticising the cost and the need for speed that would see commuters get between the capital and Birmingham in just 49 minutes.
HS2 Ltd, the body that the Government established to write and then steer the hybrid Bill to approve the railway that is currently going through Parliament, decided there was an image problem. What was needed was a change of presentational tack, so that HS2 was repositioned as the ideal solution to a looming rail capacity crisis rather than as a grand Coalition statement that here was a Government that would bring 225mph trains to Britain.
In came a secondee from the lobbying firm Westbourne Communications, while the former media director for HS1 (the Channel Tunnel rail link to you and me) also signed up to sort out relations with what was viewed as a hostile press. In the most eye-catching move of all, Tom Kelly, Tony Blair's former head of media, has been brought in to oversee the latest PR offensive and convince the public of the benefits of a railway with a price tag that dwarfs the GDPs of Sri Lanka, Croatia and Luxembourg.
However, like a cricket team playing on the crack-riddled dry pitches of India, HS2 can never have enough spinners, and, I understand, it has been interviewing for a new director of communications. Once the appointment is made, that will mean the introduction of four heavyweight communications figures since the start of 2013, which one expert in the dark arts of PR pointed out is as many as conglomerates with offices across Europe often employ.
The new chairman, Sir David Higgins, understandably wants the best comms team he can muster, but overloading the spin machine is not going to ensure that HS2 is built. You can tie a ribbon on a turd, but it's still a turd; gold might be found in dirt, but it is still precious.
A source close to the Department for Transport argues that bolstering the communications team will "answer genuine criticism that this project has not been as forthcoming as it could be". Of course, that is not the case; the whole point of a director of communications is to present their employer in the best possible light and play down any criticisms.
For months, such an attitude has meant that HS2 publicly and privately denied the absolute certainty that the hybrid Bill would not be passed before the next general election, even though MPs with seats to save along the proposed route have long vowed to bog down the legislation to a virtual standstill.
Only when the inevitability of missing that ludicrously tight timetable (the Bill, including a 50,000-page environmental document, was only submitted in November) became so obvious as to be equally ludicrous to keep denying it did the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin concede this week that HS2 is going to take far longer to reach the statute books.
They could tell us, even persuade us, that the Bill would defy all Parliamentary logic and be approved in just 18 months, but that wouldn't change the ultimate truth that it could not and will not.
What the creation of The Publicity Bureau 114 years ago did was provide the catalyst for presentational self-interest to become one of the most powerful industries of the 20th and 21st centuries. This has led to the lie that presentation has primacy over reality; the reason why HS2 survived its crisis last year was not because the media and commuters liked the new "message", it was because the brains behind the railway took another, more sensible look at the cost – and because Britain sorely needs better infrastructure.
Ministers and HS2 would do well to remember that the greatest engineering feats this country has ever seen took place in the 100 years or so before The Publicity Bureau was founded, and even longer before PR as a discipline made its way to the UK. The Victorians didn't need a battery of spinners to create history and HS2 doesn't need to keep adding more PR gurus to do the same.
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