News Analysis: Refusing to take a back seat on homosexuality - Controversy rages in Scotland over the high profile role that public affairs agency Media House has played in the campaign to retain Clause 28

Media House, the public affairs agency involved in Scotland’s Keep The Clause campaign has ended up making headlines in its own right.

Media House, the public affairs agency involved in Scotland’s Keep

The Clause campaign has ended up making headlines in its own right.



However, accusations of homophobia are flatly denied by the agency. To

those running the campaign to save controversial Section 28 of the Local

Government Act, which bans local authorities from promoting

homosexuality, the key issue is democracy. It is, in the words of one of

those involved, aimed at stopping the ’majority of unsophisticated Scots

having Islington values shoved down their necks’.



The campaigners involved in Keep the Clause, backed by Stagecoach

millionaire Brian Souter, are playing a waiting game. The success or

failure of Media House’s campaign will only become apparent when First

Minister Donald Dewar’s Scottish executive makes its decision, and the

Scottish Parliament votes on the matter; at the earliest, three months

from now.



In the meantime, Jack Irvine, executive chairman of Media House, is

making enemies in the Scottish PR community, who say his campaign has so

far exhibited a certain cack-handedness. Openly-gay Roy Robertson, for

example, with 12 years on the Scottish PR scene behind him, accuses

Media House and Irvine, of cynically peddling the belief that

homosexuals are out to corrupt children.



Irvine has also committed that cardinal PR sin - playing too public a

role.



Media House staged a press conference in Edinburgh two weeks ago to

highlight support for the Keep The Clause campaign by another of its

clients, the Scottish School Boards Association. Careful planning at

Media House’s Glasgow office failed to prevent it descending into farce.

A fax, purporting to be from one of Irvine’s colleagues, indicated

support for the cause from Simple Minds vocalist Jim Kerr and celebrity

chef Nick Nairn. This was announced at the press conference without

first seeking confirmation.



The fax, needless to say, was a hoax, designed to scupper the

campaign.



To an extent it worked - Media House could boast front page coverage in

all the Scottish papers the next day - but the headlines were littered

with words like ’farce’, ’fiasco’ and ’chaos’.



Irvine, a former Scottish editor of the Sun and managing director of its

parent company News International, willingly admits responsibility for

the fax error. He did not check it out before handing it to his

colleague on the platform, David Macauley. But the question remains as

to whether Macauley should have been on the platform in the first

place.



It is a commonly held opinion that PR is supposed to be a hidden

discipline: the focus should be on the message, not the messenger. Yet

Irvine dismisses this point, saying that for most people, facing the

press is a nerve-wracking ordeal, so those with experience should chair

such meetings.



Then there is the linked claim that the PROs involved have become part

of the story. Irvine writes a column for a Scottish tabloid, and had

always managed to avoid writing pieces relating to his Media House

clients. However, last week this would have been absurd, so Irvine was

outed as the man behind the campaign.



Scotland’s tabloids have been cheerleading for Keep the Clause, with

headlines predicting ’Gay Sex Lessons for Kids’, should Section 28 be

repealed. Senior figures at the Glasgow-based Daily Record have their

doubts about Media House’s ability to maintain control of the

campaign.



Political editor Ron Mackenna firmly denies that the agency has had a

hand in any of its coverage. ’We’ve generated our own stories about the

issue because our readers don’t want Section 28 scrapped. We covered

Media House’s problematic launch but, if you excuse the pun, we covered

it straight,’ he says. Irvine contests the claim that the Record has

been generating its own stories, and is said to have a close working

relationship with Mackenna’s boss, editor Martin Clarke.



Either way, serious doubts have been raised about the campaign. Taken

together the ’disastrous cock-up’ (Irvine’s words) at the launch, and

the centre stage role of PROs have cast a shadow over Media House’s

role.



Although the agency is retained by a lot of blue-chip big-name clients,

its association with this campaign, and that of the pro-shooting

Scottish Countryside Alliance, means it leaves itself open to the claim

that, even superficially, it may be developing a reputation as the

agency of choice for reactionary or old-fashioned causes.



In Irvine’s favour, several key objectives have been met. A raft of

Scottish tabloids have written supportive editorials. Only the

broadsheet Scotsman, with its middle-class readership, and the Glasgow

Herald, have come out against. According to a column inch analysis last

weekend, Section 28 has generated more coverage for the last two weeks

than any other running story, with the exception of the US presidential

race.



But coverage alone is not all. As if it were not enough to be accused of

overriding basic PR precepts - organising efficiently and keeping a low

profile foremost among them - Media House has been involved with a

campaign which has been blamed for bringing to the surface a serious and

unpleasant strain of homophobia in Scotland, even if this was not its

intention.



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