What we think

General Election: We were crazy to think that this could work

A few weeks into the election campaign and the landscape is becoming clear.  The SNP will dominate in Scotland.  The Liberal Democrats, despite their embarrassing early optimism, are settled into the slog of trying to win 30-40 seats – although hobbled by a leader who voters dislike more and more whenever she is seen in public.  And the Labour Party is chucking spending pledges at everything in sight as it tries to get voters to think about anything but Brexit: a wall of money and radicalism that it surely has no real belief it will ever actually have to deliver.

Meanwhile the Conservatives are fighting a deeply conservative campaign.  Boris Johnson is serving up cup after cup of Brexit coffee occasionally sweetened with some populist magic money tree flavourings of his own.  One slight surprise is that the Tories have not been hammered from the right by those who are terrified by the fiscal incontinence they are suddenly showing.  Yet again, the ability of Brexit to mask realities and cloud everyone’s judgement is revealed.

A cynic would say that all election campaigns involve politicians over-promising, and that they are always followed by a period in which the new government has to explain why this or that pledge turns out to be undeliverable in office.  What is extraordinary about this election is the extent to which the whole exercise is being based on whoppers, the biggest of which is that voting on 12 December is an opportunity to deal with Brexit once and for all.

As many commentators have pointed out, the idea that Brexit will “get done” or “sorted” anytime soon is utter nonsense.  In truth we are faced in 2020 with either another negotiation and then a long referendum campaign or another year of brinkmanship and rollercoastering towards a free trade agreement or no deal whatsoever.  Even then we will not be done, as Brexit will continue to dominate our politics for years and years and years.

In a narrow sense the outcome of the election remains uncertain.  Whether the Conservatives can turn a double-digit lead in the polls into 40-50 extra seats in the Midlands and the North is still an open question and, with two-and-a-half weeks to go it still feels like some event or issue could pop up to change everything.  But in another way the result is nailed on: an enormous sense of betrayal and disillusionment as it becomes clear that Brexit is still lingering and dominating everything.  And so the inability of the political parties to provide any sort of genuine leadership will be once again exposed and our collective spiral into cynicism and mistrust will continue.  Fun times.

This blog was originally posted on the PRCA website: https://www.prca.org.uk/GE-We-were-crazy-to-think-this-could-work 

Sorry seems to be the hardest word – by Adam Batstone

Twice in recent weeks a high-profile TV interview has prompted headlines because of the interviewees’ refusal to say sorry.

First it was Prince Andrew whose ill-judged Newsnight interview provoked a storm of hilarity but also real outrage because he steadfastly refused to acknowledge the suffering of his pal Jeffrey Epstein’s victims.

Last night it was Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s turn to decline Andrew Neil’s invitation to say sorry to the UK Jewish community, because of allegations of antisemitism within the Labour party.

Sorry is only a small word, but it is remarkably powerful and its presence or absence from the mouth of an interviewee in difficult circumstances can change the nature of subsequent media coverage.

There is no doubt that both Prince Andrew and Jeremy Corbyn prepared for these interviews. Only a fool would agree to an in-depth TV interview with either Emily Maitlis or Andrew Neil without having spent a bit of time thinking what they may be asked and how they might respond.

While the charges against both men were very different, they were both extremely serious and it was obvious that careless (both nonchalant or lacking in thought) answers would inevitably lead to criticism.  In these high-stakes circumstances, it is not simply the words you do or don’t say that matter, but also the tone you adopt.

Prince Andrew clearly decided that it would be ‘honourable’ and ‘show leadership’ to front up and give full answers to all the questions. Nothing, no matter how awkward, would be out of bounds. But he ended up coming across as entirely unrepentant and solely focused on saving his own reputation. Despite being given numerous opportunities with questions like: “Is there anything else you would like to say?” he resolutely failed to say sorry to the women who were sexually abused.

His lack of compassion was compounded by his expression of regret for having gone to visit Epstein in New York after his release from prison. He was sorry for himself and sorry for getting caught out. In that context his other answers, explanations and excuses about Pizza Express in Woking and the mystery ‘no sweat’ condition just made him seem absurd.

Jeremy Corbyn (veteran leftie) quizzed by Andrew Neil (ex-Murdoch editor and Tory supporter) was always going to be incendiary. The match was provided by Britain’s most senior rabbi writing to The Times to accuse Labour of antisemitism.

Corbyn sought to adopt a calm and measured approach. But he was clearly riled by the intensity of the questions and at times struggled to keep his temper. His attempts to keep cool misfired and he appeared to dismiss the serious charges as vexatious or nothing new. Asked several times if he would say sorry, he steadfastly refused to do so.  Presumably this was so as not to appear weak or on the back foot, but as with Prince Andrew, he was left looking at best unsympathetic and at worst guilty.

The clear lesson to be learned here for anyone unfortunate enough to be facing tough questions, no matter what the context, is that expressing sympathy for victims is always advisable.

If someone feels aggrieved (regardless whether you think their grievance is legitimate) expressing sorrow for their suffering is OK. It is NOT an admission of guilt to do so and ‘sorry’ immediately changes the tone of the interview.

It will be interesting to see Boris Johnson in the Andrew Neil hot seat and how he deals with the list of tough questions he will doubtless face.

Neil can choose from a long list of aggrieved parties who Johnson has insulted or let down including Muslim women, the city of Liverpool and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to name but a few.

Will Boris Johnson deploy the S word – or will he seek to dodge the question with his tried and tested Cicero meets The Beano rhetoric?

Adam Batstone is a journalist who has worked for newspapers, radio, TV and the BBC News website. He spent three years working in corporate communications before setting up his own consultancy offering media training to a wide variety of clients www.adambatstone.co.uk

The rise and rise of podcasts: How to make them and what they are for – by Adam Batstone

Three thousand people recently went to the O2 in London to witness tall footballer Peter Crouch lark about on stage with a random collection of celebrities including Liam Gallagher and Katherine Jenkins.

Crouch Fest, as the event was billed, came about thanks solely to the existence of That Peter Crouch Podcast – a BBC podcast that features the genial musings of Crouch and a couple of BBC presenters. As the big fellow told the audience: “When I first agreed to do this, I didn’t even know what a podcast was and now it’s become massive”.

The former England and Liverpool striker will not be the only one who until recently was a bit baffled by the definition of a podcast. But in no small part thanks to the BBC’s constant plugging of its Sounds app, podcasts are entering mainstream consciousness.

Recent figures from Ofcom suggest six million people either download or stream podcasts every week, and a sizeable percentage of those are under the age of 40.

Podcasts aren’t new. When I was at the BBC I produced some of the first trials of the format for programmes like Click Online and Have Your Say almost 20 years ago. The audiences were small – but that was in an era before the advent of smartphones.

Now phones are ubiquitous and anyone can listen to podcasts wherever and whenever it suits them; on the train, in the car, while cooking or in the bath.

The spike in popularity has led to a production gold rush, with thousands of people eager to make their own. These range from the highly produced mass audience offerings to ‘man with an iPhone’ DIY podcasts.

Despite the fact it is easy (and cheap) to make a podcast, like most things of value it is worth investing time and effort to make something that sounds decent, will appeal to your audience and reflects well on your business or organisation.

While working in PR and communications I saw clients spend thousands of pounds on lavish corporate videos and glossy brochures which looked great, but begged the question: did they provide a good return on investment? The same should be asked of podcasts. In fact the key questions to consider before making a podcast are:

  • What will it be about?
  • Who will want to listen?
  • How long should it be?
  • How often should we make them?
  • How will it be promoted and distributed?
  • How much will it cost in terms of time and money?

If you think podcasts will instantly deliver a global audience of millions, think again. The real value is the ability to be able to produce targeted, niche content that will appeal to a clearly defined group. That may be for internal comms, analysts and investors interested in annual results or for a patient group with a common interest in the latest treatments for a particular medical condition.

The Beer and Pubcast, which I produce for the British Beer & Pub Association, is a B2B podcast aimed squarely at brewers, pub companies and the licensed trade. For a trade association it’s good means of communicating and involving members with campaigns and activities.

Podcasts can and should be fun to make. They provide a safe environment for people to practice their external communication and get used to a studio environment.

As Peter Crouch will vouch, podcasts have given him a new audience and profile which he couldn’t have dreamed of when he first agreed to record one. Increasingly organisations which make good use of this medium will find out the same.

Adam Batstone is a former BBC journalist turned communications consultant, and one of the Park Street Partners. He uses his broadcast and PR experience to help organisations with media training and making content. Find out more at www.adambatstone.co.uk or contact Park Street Partners.

Tell me when it’s over, and if the high was worth the pain: After Brexit

A few days ago, on April Fool’s Day, the Guardian ran a spoof story about the need to bring the UK back together after Brexit.  The article was obviously silly, and the idea of flotilla-bashing Bob Geldof being charged with salving the wounds was especially far-fetched, but for a few seconds at least I nodded along with it, because the basic point is right.  Someone is going to have to heal the nation’s pain and generally clean things up once this farrago is finally concluded.  But who, and how?

During the referendum campaign plenty of people were willing to concede that if we weren’t in the European Union already we might not join it in its current form, but the pain of leaving wasn’t worth it.  These ‘pragmatic remainers’ were no doubt thinking primarily of the economic and social impact of departing, and not that the greatest damage of all would be to politics, to the way Britain governs itself.  And yet that is the reality.

It’s difficult to project back three years but I am not sure anyone then could have imagined what a total mess our political classes would make all of this.  How craven and self-serving they would be, hypocritical, weak, unprincipled, incapable of looking beyond personal or party advantage.  There are honourable exceptions, people who have stuck doggedly to coherent positions on either the Leave or Remain side, or who have bravely changed their minds and set out their reasons why, but as a whole the political class has failed.  Their reputation is shot to pieces.

The damage is huge; trust has evaporated, and divisions and anger abound.  And what’s worse is the process is far from over.  We are a long way from passing the Withdrawal Agreement, and that is only meant to be temporary; the arguments and negotiations over our permanent relationship with the EU could roll on for years.  And even once that is settled the campaign to rejoin the club, or to leave it properly, will start straightaway.

Anyone who says “we should just leave, No Deal, and everyone will move on”, or “we should have a Second Referendum, that will solve everything”, is profoundly deluded.  Without far deeper change Brexit will be a never-ending saga which at worst will continue to foment antipathy and division, and even at best distracts us from focusing on much more important things such as the unaffordability of the NHS, the failings of our education system, and our deep problems with productivity and years of failing to invest in infrastructure.  We need a complete rupture from the past, something that puts the whole of the past three years behind us.

An important part of this is the Conservative Party.  For starters it needs to skip a generation to find its next leader; anyone tainted by Brexit would be a disaster.  Can anyone seriously imagine Boris Johnson or Amber Rudd leading a united party, let alone bringing the country together?  There are more suitable people who are perfectly capable but in its current mood I’m not sure the Party will accept a Leaver who has compromised, or a Remainer who has trimmed.  Their motives will always be questioned.  Time instead to look deeper into the ranks.

In choosing who should be its new leader it is time for the Conservative Party to confront a central dilemma.  Many of its longer-serving MPs are pragmatic about the EU, or in favour.  Its newer ones are not.  Its activists are Eurosceptic, but a lot of its supporters and potential voters are not.  The Party has become tribalist and inward-looking about this single issue and looks to all the world like a bickering bunch of (public) schoolboys.  Whatever it does from here this was to end.

Why?  Polling released in the past few days by the Onward thinktank showed just how younger voters are turning away from the Conservatives in droves.  In part this is because of the Party constantly banging on about Brexit, but it is also because it has nothing important to say about just about everything else.  It is irrelevant, ageing and pointless.  To say that it needs once again to become the party of dynamism, aspiration and enterprise is easy; Tories now need to do so, under an inspiring new leader, and have the self-discipline to put Brexit behind them once and for all.

The Labour Party has problems of its own, on Brexit and on a lot else besides.  Finding a balance between progressive, younger, mainly big city Remainers and more conservative, older, smaller town Leavers is no easier for Labour than being a ‘broad church’ is for the Tories.

But Conservatives claiming that Labour is “just as divided”, dismissing Jeremy Corbyn as incompetent and a Marxist, and deriding Labour policies as naïve and dangerous are missing the point.  However crackpot they are, at least the Party has ideas.  They might be damaging but they might not; and for people with no job security, no stake in the housing market, and no faith in established politicians, voting for Corbyn is no more of a risk than voting for Brexit.  In fact both offer a kind of hope and the chance to stick one in the eye of politics as usual.  This is a seductive blend.

So unless the Conservatives get their act together we are faced with a bleak future.  The next leader of the Tories is likely to be a populist chancer, who will fight a populist ideologue in an election of colourful insults.  Both parties will be essentially pro-Brexit and will probably have little else to say leaving millions of people feeling disenfranchised and uninspired.  That may open the way for either or both main parties to split (although the failure to launch of the Tiggers doesn’t bode well).  Faith in politics will plunge further.

Or the Conservatives could find a new leader with something new to talk about.  (Labour could too, but with Corbynistas seemingly in firm control that seems less likely.)  It really is up to the Party.  If it can bear to find a leader who barely mentions Brexit, it – and UK politics – will have a bright future.  If it does not we have many, many, more years of this crisis before us.

You are the best thing that’s ever been ours: Why history will be kinder to Theresa May than the present has been

The news yesterday that Theresa May has postponed the ‘meaningful vote’ on her Brexit deal has been hailed as yet another “humiliation” for the Prime Minister, the latest in a long string of disasters.  Her authority is in question, her very survival in No10 under threat.  So this might seem like an odd time to write a blog praising Mrs May.  But that’s what I find myself doing.

Well, kind of.  Theresa May will not go down in history as a great Prime Minister.  In fact the students of 2050 will be told that she should never have reached the top.  Lecturers will talk about how it happened: how Cameron and Hilton muffed the 2010 election; how Cameron didn’t stand up to his Eurosceptic loony fringe; and how Cameron failed to campaign properly for Remain.  How even after the Referendum it was not certain that the Queen would call for Mrs May, but with rivals self-destructing only May and Leadsom were left standing.  And so, they will say, she stumbled into Downing Street, fell into a job she was ill-prepared for.

They will be right about that.  It was obvious years ago, when her name first was linked with the top job, that she wasn’t cut out for No10.  She has little or no constituency of support in the Parliamentary or wider Conservative Party.  She is wooden and awkward in public and on television.  For the most part she simply doesn’t listen to advice, and when she does it all too often comes from people like Nick Timothy who she listened to far too much.  She ticks few of the boxes of a successful modern politician.

And her time as PM has only proved the point.  She has presided over a spectacularly bad election campaign, in 2017.  Cabinet Ministers have left with monotonous regularity.  She has weakly oscillated between the rock of the EU and the hard place of the Conservative right wing.  Windrush, Universal Credit and homelessness have all shamed her regime, even if they are not directly or not exclusively her fault.  And the biggest mistake of all, drawing red lines very early on that painted us into a corner.  There is little impressive about her track record.

And yet there is so much that is impressive about the Prime Minister herself.  Even her enemies have a grudging respect for the way she has stoically kept going.  No humiliation has been too great to overcome her resilience, and no trial a match for her stamina.  She has kept going and going and going, doggedly, calmly and unflappably.  How is it possible not to admire that?

And look at the hand of cards she was dealt by her predecessor.  History will not judge Cameron, the lazy dilettante, kindly; he was, and is, with his bizarre belief he could be Foreign Secretary one day, the living embodiment of the great curse of establishment politics, complacency.  He created this Brexit mess and he abandoned it to Mrs May.  Although she has made mistakes in dealing with it, principally the red lines, she has at least never complained.  And who, seriously, would have handled it better?

So what will history say about Mrs May?  It will probably say that her track record was terrible, unless she performs a Houdini-like escape and gets her Brexit deal through.  But it will hail her heroism, the fact that she appears to believe in public service and real patriotism, in selflessness and sacrifice.  It will note the monumental egos that preceded her, their need to be loved, or impose their will, or fill a hole in their emotional lives.  It will say she believed in duty and not in self-aggrandisement.  And in the end, although her time in power may be presented as a tragedy, she will be judged kindly for that.

We, in the present, should attempt to do the same.  Of course Theresa May is flawed but at this time of national chaos it is at least a little bit reassuring to have a leader who is honest and trying to do her very best in an impossible situation.  Could anyone way the same about just about every one of the alternatives.  As MPs contemplate replacing Mrs May they should give due weight to her strengths as well as her weaknesses.