John Major ate our monsters: In the Eighties, a few slick public relations men fed a hungry press. Now their power may be passing (CORRECTED)

Click to follow
The Independent Online
CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 12 FEBRUARY AND 18 FEBRUARY 1993) APPENDED TO THIS ARTICLE

AGGRESSIVE public relations blossomed in the Eighties. Its star practitioners - Tim Bell, Max Clifford - were names as big, or bigger, than many of their clients. Sacred monsters, they rose above the mire of anonymous PR hustlers to be profiled with queasy fascination and mistrustful dependency by journalists who knew these were not affordable enemies. For they pulled the strings on all the big stories. In their grander moments they probably saw themselves as the Richelieus or Machiavellis of their day.

But their decline may have begun. John Major, unlike Margaret Thatcher, does not recruit from the ranks of gilded Eighties courtiers, so the magic of their techniques and the effectiveness of their personalities are no longer endorsed by the centre of power. And there have been failures. The British Airways-Virgin fiasco began with a blunder by Brian Basham, the City's most lethal PR operator. In a much wider context it might be said that the royals' long-term attempt to use a public relations offensive to define a new national role as exemplary family unit has been disastrously ill-judged. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but since the Prince of Wales hired Belinda Harley, his public standing has dived. Plus, of course, no matter how many PR-endorsed, dark, double-

breasted suits the Labour Party buys, it cannot seem to get elected.

For the moment, though, the old monsters still reign, alike but different and mutually hostile as ever. Sir Tim Bell and Max Clifford have the same haircut - a smooth, defiant bouffant or thickened crest - and both have offices in Mayfair. Both lean forward and say: 'Now, you can't write this, Bryan,' before launching into libellous stories 'off the record', any one of which would rate splash treatment from the Daily Sport right through to the Independent. Clifford runs a one-man show from a shabby office. His finest hour was the placement of the 'Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster' revelation in the Sun. Bell runs a big company from a smart office with Alaia-clad secretaries at an address that overlooks the flat where Jeffrey Archer 'didn't do what he was supposed to have done'. His finest hour was more than a decade of rule by the woman whose image he managed.

But the most recent reason for their mutual loathing is the David Mellor affair. Clifford looked after Antonia de Sancha and Bell ran Mellor. It was a fight in which no blows landed above the belt. Bell and Mellor bounced off the ropes with the stunted photograph of the happy family together leaning on a gate. In reply, Clifford and de Sancha went straight for the soft tissue with the story of the Chelsea football shirt. Clifford thinks he won - Antonia is now nicely set up with pounds 250,000 in the bank and a career opening night-clubs. 'That,' he says proudly, 'is what I call PR.' Bell just snorts and beams.

The way these PR monsters ran that affair demonstrates their power. For they, like all the monsters, are systems operators who have dodged and weaved their way into complex, symbiotic relationships with the press. They are not vulnerable publicists touting for trade in newsrooms or vainly faxing press releases into the media ether. They are dealers.

Bell, as a financial PR, keeps Sunday newspaper City editors dangling and begging for his latest angle. Clifford takes pleading calls from tabloid reporters staring into the abyss of redundancy if they fail to get the new line on his latest bimbo. Harley looks like what middle-aged men always promise themselves, and Basham is ever ready to murmur a smart, new line rubbishing the opposition in some takeover battle. Even when they blunder - as Basham did with BA - they can always trade their way back because their hack target knows that he needs them at least as much as they need him.

A corporate, theoretical or academic mentality in this business is useless. It is not remotely like advertising, as some seem to think, because you cannot control the end product. You are, as Bell puts it, trying to inform and persuade through the use of 'a third-party endorsement'. You can only exert any influence over this third party - usually a poor, dumb hack - with a good deal of low cunning, street wisdom and, where necessary, recourse to blackmail.

The way the monsters have interpreted this definition is by playing Mephistopheles to the journalist's Faust. They establish their position as powerful middle-men, brokers of stories. What they tell the journalist may not be true or it may be so tendentious as to be untrue in effect and, either way, it will be known to be serving a cause. Yet it will probably not be checked because of the strange authority of the source - an authority that arises not from truth but from his known centrality within the system. The hack plays ball, sells his soul and journalism becomes a series of quick deals with the inner ring of monsters.

None of them would admit to recognising this picture, of course, and both Bell and Clifford have their justifications. Clifford says he deals only with harmless stuff - nobody loses his job if, in reality, Freddie Starr did not eat the hamster - and Bell says it is all about clear communication and the lubrication of the wheels of democracy. But if you can grab as many of the threads of the web of the media and their subject matter and force them to run through your desk, your phone or your fax, then monsterhood is yours.

For the duration of the Eighties the media environment was on their side. The media were expanded and homogenised. Highly differentiated newspapers pursuing their own types of stories became viciously competitive newspapers, each of which had to have every possible angle on a limited number of big stories. Limping behind were television and radio. Anybody caught up in the rapid switchbacks and complexities of one of these stories - whether a politician, a mistress or a royal - was likely to be overwhelmed. The problem became even more acute because stories such as Mellor-de Sancha ran across the entire newspaper spectrum. The broadsheets could no longer simply distance themelves from the tabloid excitement.

It was in this climate that the big fixers emerged and were noticed. People became aware that there were smart guys who could identify and operate the systems at work beneath this apparent chaos. And, of course, the broadsheets found that they could cover the sleaze while pretending not to by writing haughtily about operators such as Clifford.

The royals, meanwhile, provided the obvious example of the dangers of not working through a decent fixer. Certainly Diana, and probably Charles, tried to ride the switchbacks on their own by enlisting press support against each other. This was stupidity of a high order. Inevitably the roller-coaster plunged into a shark pool and they were both devoured. Bell or Clifford would at least have known where to toss the meat. Harley arrived too late and, anyway, probably had no experience of this kind of feeding frenzy. Most of the monsters now agree the royals should drop PR completely. Nothing can be salvaged, only, maybe, healed by time and silence.

The first problem the monsters face is that Major's courtiers are not stars, like Bell or Bernard Ingham, and he seems blissfully content with - or ignorant of - the resulting disasters of presentation. Lowering interest rates and looking awful or accidentally announcing workfare and then unannouncing it are blunders that any attendant fixer could have avoided. But Major is intent on not being Thatcher, and that means no monsters.

Bell thinks they all face extinction over the next 20 years because the media will begin to fragment again. Technology will mean you can pick your stories, even print your newspaper off a screen. The great, satisfying bundles of dailies and Sundays will lose their control over the big mood-making stories of the day. Everybody will be into niche news and the monstrous fixers will be out of a job.

Maybe that will be sad. There is nothing noble or admirable about the monsters. But they are likeable, clever and fun. There is even something vaguely heroic, even thrillingly skilful, about the spectacle of Bell weaving his way triumphantly through the mess of the Tory 1987 election campaign or Clifford playing the tabloids like a violin over some shock, horror bimbo.

But, in the end, it is to be hoped that they die. Whatever they may, with sporadic coherence, say, they are all about triviality, about reducing everything - politics, culture and life - to presentation. They exploit our radical ignorance of and impotence before the complex and baffling systems of the world. During the coal strike, Bell asked Ian MacGregor to wear light grey suits so his dandruff would not show - he knew that, in the absence of real knowledge or wisdom in the voters, dandruff counts. If we accept such ignorance, we shall get the monsters we deserve. It may be fun and it may be easy, but it won't be truth because the monsters, like Pilate, know that truth gets in the way of business.

CORRECTION

IN HIS article of 11 February, entitled 'John Major ate our monsters', Bryan Appleyard incorrectly asserted that Belinda Harley was responsible for the Prince of Wales's PR. In fact, her position is that of Assistant Private Secretary, and her duties do not involve any responsibility for the Prince of Wales's press or public relations.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments