OPINION: Phoenix episode reveals home truths

Isn't it wonderful to be born beautiful and to be in the right

place at the right time, even if you're as ugly as sin? I refer, of

course, to Phoenix, the white calf that (along with Porky, the

Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, in which Brigitte Bardot took a useful

interest), were spared the foot-and-mouth cull. These born survivors are

testimony to the dumbing down of British government and the impact of

spin on policy. One is the inevitable consequence of the other. Phoenix

and Porky illustrate just what can happen when policy is dictated by

presentation.



The facts are fairly clear. Phoenix was found down among the dead cattle

of Devon to have somehow escaped preventative slaughter. Her appealing

picture rapidly became a dangerous national symbol for the Government

among voters unhappy about the wholesale killing of healthy animals.

Number 10, alerted to tabloid outrage, promptly introduced a change of

cull policy and announced to the world via TV's News at Ten that kind,

cuddly Tony Blair, the prime minister Who Always Listens, had saved

Phoenix. This is certainly the message we got from the Daily Mirror,

whose propaganda resources were rapidly organised. But if cute Phoenix

could be preserved, why not Porky, who does not rate highly on the

pulchritude scale? So Porky lives on, too.



Of course, we were later told that selective culling was nothing new. If

so, why did our hapless and sidelined agriculture minister, Nick Brown,

not announce it to Parliament before Phoenix became the first-known

beneficiary?



The answer, I suspect, is that he was as much in the dark about the

change of policy as anybody else outside Number 10 until it occurred.

Spin-doctors are no respecters of persons. If the Government's or the

Prime Minister's image needs massaging, ministers can eat humiliation

for breakfast.



It is quite possible that many PROs will be beside themselves with

admiration at this manifestation of Number 10 press secretary Alastair

Campbell's power and manipulative skills. After all, they will say, he

pre-empted a bad press for the Government and converted it (in some

quarters) into praise for his leader's compassion. It just shows you,

they will say, what a PRO in the Cabinet Room - and, by extension, the

board room - can do, given the opportunity.



Indeed, it does. But it also shows you what a narrow, blinkered

pre-occupation with headlines can achieve, too. Phoenix and Porky

photogenically confirm within weeks of a general election what drives

this Government. It is not policy, not principle, not consistency, not

fairness, certainly not constitutional propriety, not even the

eradication of disease. It is an obsession with short-term advantage,

driven by a cynical contempt for the intelligence of ordinary folk.

Phoenix and Porky have not suffered and survived in vain.



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