Only BBC producers can overcome this moment of PR madness

The BBC may have won PR Week’s best internal publication award for its staff newspaper Ariel but it has secured - and deserves - no PR prizes for the absurd internal note from its chief political adviser, Anne Sloman telling editors that ’under no circumstances whatsoever should the allegations about the private life of Peter Mandelson be repeated or referred to on any broadcast’.

The BBC may have won PR Week’s best internal publication award for

its staff newspaper Ariel but it has secured - and deserves - no PR

prizes for the absurd internal note from its chief political adviser,

Anne Sloman telling editors that ’under no circumstances whatsoever

should the allegations about the private life of Peter Mandelson be

repeated or referred to on any broadcast’.



The order of the day followed the ’outing’ of Mr Mandelson as a

homosexual by Matthew Parris on the BBC’s Newsnight to the amazing

discomfiture of the usually resilient Jeremy Paxman. But why the fuss?

It wasn’t the first time that the Trade Secretary’s sexuality had been

canvassed in the media. As MP for Hartlepool, in the somewhat

traditional north east, Mr Mandelson doesn’t boast about his

orientation, but he doesn’t wave writs. After all, there is nothing

illegal these days about homosexual acts among consenting adults. And

the issue was relevant. Ron Davies, Secretary of State for Wales until

his ’moment of madness’ on Clapham Common, had caused speculation as to

how many Cabinet Ministers are ’gay’.



Of course, I know from experience how incredibly sensitive the BBC is

about this subject. It must have been terribly twitchy over the past

week.



I also acknowledge that it is entitled to have a policy on such issues,

as news presenter Peter Sissons has pointed out. In my view, it should

seek to avoid gratuitous treatment of it. But what is clearly untenable

in a free society is to ban any reference to an individual’s

orientation, regardless of the circumstances or its relevance.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what Ms Sloman tried to do.



Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam ’exploded in fury’ over the implied

censorship, according to the Sunday Telegraph, before appearing on Any

Questions? She did herself credit. But I hope she is also infuriated

about the damage Ms Sloman has done to the BBC’s reputation for

impartiality and objectivity. I have never found it secure among

politicians. But now they are asking why the BBC is apparently currying

favour with a well-known manipulator of the media and going soft on a

close friend of BBC director general John Birt. And why, when Mr Blair

has even more explicitly than Mr Major embraced family values, should Mr

Mandelson be treated differently from a whole string of aberrant but

usually heterosexual Tory politicians of relative obscurity a few years

ago?



For sheer PR crassness Ms Sloman’s signal takes the biscuit. It’s a

particularly fine example of counter-productive internal communication -

a sort of self-generating panic which will be preserved as an example of

anti-PR in the textbooks. Meanwhile, all that stands between the BBC and

justifiable charges of bias are sensible editors and producers. May God

go with them and give them strength.



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