Judge and Jury - The Sierra Leone arms furore is a textbook case of PR gone wrong - Robin Cook and the Government broke several golden PR rules in the way it dealt with the African arms crisis, says Sir Bernard Ingham, former No 10 press secretary

Labour’s apologists are putting it about that, in the great sweep of history, Sierra Leone will count for nothing. They are wrong. It has already entered the PR textbooks as an example of how not to handle an issue.

Labour’s apologists are putting it about that, in the great sweep

of history, Sierra Leone will count for nothing. They are wrong. It has

already entered the PR textbooks as an example of how not to handle an

issue.



It will also become a useful tool in teaching politics because of what

it tells you about this Government - which is not very clever PR either

since what you learn does not redound to its reputation.



I reckon that the Government has so far broken five other PR rules.

First, never react without knowing the facts. Foreign Secretary Robin

Cook was so desperate to exonerate himself from blame for any UN

sanctions-busting arms-running that we were left wondering whether

anybody in Government knew what was going on.



You can understand his problem. He made hay in Opposition over the

munitions-to-Iraq affair and is now supposed to be running a moral

foreign policy.



Second, never compound your reputation for being a rat for ditching your

wife by leaving the impression you are also prepared to lay down your

junior Ministers’ and officials’ lives to save your own skin. Similarly,

it is unwise to reinforce gossip that your love life reinforces your

natural disinclination to get the bottom of your Ministerial boxes.



Third, having talked yourself into a hole, stop digging. Mr Cook has

clearly missed his calling. He would have made a superb navvy. No doubt

Sandline, the mercenaries in this case who have relished exchanging

salvoes with him, are considering hiring him for mining and sapping

duties.



Fourth, never lose control. Mr Cook has clearly learned nothing from the

Scott inquiry for he has festooned himself with investigations to prove

his innocence. He has put his political life in someone else’s

hands.



He has also ensured that the issue keeps coming back like a Eurovision

song contest. And fifth, never get yourself repudiated. Suddenly out of

the blue Tony Blair took credit for re-installing the legitimate

Government of President Kabbah in Freetown only five days after Mr Cook

had asserted ’there was no Government policy or UN support for military

intervention to restore him’.



The result is a damaged and probably lame-duck Foreign Secretary; a

Government which - as Bernie Ecclestone and the euro have previously

shown - can be amazingly slow to get its act together; and a Prime

Minister who mercilessly overrides and humiliates his most senior

colleagues with positively amazing brass neck. This is not what the spin

doctor ordered.



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