Mark Leftly: High Speed 2 is going nowhere fast with its trainloads of spin doctors

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.

twitter.com/@mleftly

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
One Direction's Zayn Malik gazes at a bouquet of flowers in the 'Night Changes' music video
people
News
people
News
'Free the Nipple' film screening after party with We Are The XX, New York, America - 04 Feb 2014
news
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A position has arisen within th...

Ashdown Group: Development Manager - Rickmansworth - £55k +15% bonus

£50000 - £63000 per annum + excellent benefits : Ashdown Group: IT Manager / D...

Recruitment Genius: Security Officer

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Applicants must hold a valid SIA Door Su...

Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - City, London

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - Financial Services - The C...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

Election 2015

Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May