OPINION: Reputation shattered - Hoon teeters on the brink

As the dust begins to settle on the first weeks of the Hutton Inquiry, the collateral career damage is becoming clear. One of the early victims is Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon. After 'friends' thrashed around in the Sunday papers briefing and counter-briefing, one wondered, did he spin or was he spun?

Either way, it was a PR disaster for one of the Prime Minister's closest allies. Hoon has become another victim of friendly fire in the war with Iraq. Ordered to stay inside his Florida villa on the day of Dr David Kelly's funeral so a nation would be spared pictures of him and his family enjoying their summer holiday - the holiday he insisted on taking - Hoon hasn't been seen since.

A picture of the minister in his swimmers was more valuable to the tabloids than one of Rachel Hunter without hers, yet none materialised, despite the efforts of the British paparazzi. Hoon took his warning so seriously it seems he's planning to stay indoors for the entire Hutton Inquiry.

Would that he could, he must be wishing now.

Yet, even before he was able to set foot back in the country, he was clumsily trying to manage expectations in the newspapers. 'Friends and close colleagues' - lobby speak for either the minister himself or his closest spokesmen - revealed that he was preparing to 'fall on his sword' over the death of Dr Kelly. All very noble stuff.

Sadly for the minister, The Sunday Telegraph decided to give him a little push, and the carefully crafted pre-emptive strike was devastated by the headline: 'Hoon: "Kelly death has destroyed my career."'

It appeared that the minister was putting the value of a career above that of a life, and no ordinary life, but that of a highly respected arms expert and civil servant.

There is always a danger when a politician either briefs a newspaper himself, off the record so he is not attributed, or allows friends to do it for him. I know the reporter on The Sunday Telegraph story, and Francis Elliott is not a man to make things up. No lobby journalist would take quotes like this from someone not authorised to speak for the minister.

But there can be a huge difference between the quiet word in a journalist's ear and it appearing in black and white. The moment the story was published, Hoon's friends were on to The Sunday Times denying it, counter-briefing that Hoon was not about to 'carry the can' for Dr Kelly's death and would 'mount a robust defence of his actions'.

Politicians have been playing the expectations game for as long as they've been sleeping with their secretaries, not that I am accusing Hoon of either.

After all, it was because of his wife and the threat of being 'in trouble at home' that he went ahead with his Florida holiday in the first place.

Back to the spin operation. Placing a story in a newspaper predicting certain gloom, and perhaps also doom, is a way of softening the impact when it comes. People think, well it wasn't so bad after all, and the politician lives to fight another day.

But, best laid plans and all that... If the story is over-promoted, or lands on a quiet news day, what one hoped would be a page two story setting the scene becomes a page one splash blowing you out of the water. All that can be sure is that if Hoon and those authorised to speak for him had kept quiet, there would be no spin to counter.

The weekend's briefings have left Hoon wounded. The sight of him striding into the Hutton Inquiry will invoke for many people just two thoughts - that he chose to holiday rather than face up to Dr Kelly's widow at the funeral, and that he complained that the doctor's death had destroyed his career. In the final analysis, it may be spin that achieves that.

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