Who will rid us of turbulent PR man George Pitcher?
Tory MPs and many Church insiders will be glad to see the back of the Archbishop's spin doctor. Jerome Taylor on a fall from grace
Tuesday 19 July 2011
For a man who wrote a seminal book on the shadowy nature of public relations entitled The Death of Spin, there is something rather ironic about the fact that George Pitcher – the Archbishop of Canterbury's public affairs secretary – has been dismissed for what appears to have been a spin too far.
Mr Pitcher, a former industrial correspondent turned Anglican priest who styles himself as the vicar of Fleet Street, is to leave his post as Rowan Williams' chief spin doctor after just nine months in the job.
The official reason given by Lambeth Palace is the termination of what was only ever a year-long contract. But sources within the Church of England and Westminster say Mr Pitcher's departure was the endgame of a political fallout that began with Archbishop Williams' damning critique of the Government's cuts and ended with an offhand joke about canapés.
Relations between Downing Street and Lambeth Palace took a turn for the worse last month when the Archbishop of Canterbury tore strips off the Government's cuts programme in a guest editorial for the New Statesman magazine.
"With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted," the Archbishop wrote. "At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context."
As Downing Street tried to defuse the situation with platitudes about the Archbishop being "entitled to his own opinion", behind the scenes Tory MPs were furious that the leader of the Anglican Communion had dared to make such an openly critical foray into politics.
Whatever happened to the separation of church and state, they fumed (conveniently forgetting, it seems, that 26 unelected bishops have seats in the House of Lords and that the Church of England is Britain's official church).
Within Tory circles, knives were out for Mr Pitcher, who played an instrumental role in setting up the Archbishop's guest editorship of the New Statesman, encouraging his boss – who has often been criticised for being inaccessible to the public – to embrace such an opportunity.
Sources close to Lambeth Palace say that despite the backlash from Tory MPs, Archbishop Williams was in fact pleased with the edition of the New Statesman, which he thought had forced Downing Street to address the Church's concerns about the scale and speed of the cuts. But some of Williams' aides were concerned that his spin doctor's swashbuckling style was overly confrontational and created the wrong sort of headlines.
An off-the-cuff comment by Mr Pitcher at a party soon gave his enemies on both sides of the Thames the perfect opportunity to strike. In a diary piece published last month in The Telegraph, he was reported to have joked that Archbishop Williams had taken the religious commentator Cristina Odone "roughly over the canapés" when she met him and criticised his New Statesman editorial.
Sources say Mr Pitcher offered his resignation when the diary item first appeared, but it was only accepted last week once the Archbishop had returned from a trip to Kenya and the Congo. He will stay on until his contract expires on 30 September but it will not be renewed.
"When it comes to something as important as public relations, the last thing you needed was the Archbishop's spin doctor going around saying stupid things," said one church official familiar with the affair.
Mr Pitcher yesterday declined to comment on whether he had been pushed from his position. But he did say he was now intending to stay away from the dark arts of public relations and return to writing. "The culture in the Church is predominantly bureaucratic and I'm more of a street fighter so it's probably better that I head back to Fleet Street," he said.
His departure will leave Lambeth Palace bereft of a charismatic operator who was keen to see the Church engage with the public on key political issues. In a recent piece for the Sunday Express, he wrote: "The middle classes and MPs are keen to tell bishops to butt out of politics when they've something to say about health or education or treatment of our elderly. But our Church isn't outside politics, only party politics."
Others say Rowan Williams will now need to find a replacement for Mr Pitcher who will do more to protect him, rather than promote him. "Rowan needs advice, he really does," said one Westminster lobbyist at a prominent Anglican group.
"His background is thoughtful academia and he doesn't really spend enough time working out how his words will be perceived in the mainstream press. But at the same time his press team should be encouraging him to get out there and talk about issues, not duck behind safe headlines."
The journalist turned PR
With his tousled grey locks, sharp wit and dog-collar, Mr Pitcher has effortlessly segued back and forth between journalism, PR and the Church. As The Observer's industrial editor during the 1980s, he won awards for his coverage of Margaret Thatcher's privatisation drive, before setting up the highly lucrative Luther Pendragon PR agency with BBC reporter Charles Stewart-Smith.
He also joined the Anglican Church, becoming a working curate at St Bride's, the London church that traditionally caters for Fleet Street journalists. He returned to the press in the mid-2000s, becoming The Telegraph's religious editor before being fired in the aftermath of Will Lewis's departure. Last September he was hired by Lambeth Palace to be the Archbishop of Canterbury's spin doctor.
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