OPINION: Labour PR machine not as clever as it likes to think

A front page splash in The Sunday Times is still guaranteed to make big news, even though the Sunday papers have in recent years established a reputation for making things up.

Last weekend saw a classic Sunday story with the lead: 'MI5 foils poison gas attack on the tube'. I always think it fairly pointless to speculate as to who gave a paper a story, particularly as they are quite capable of, shall we say, embellishing the truth for themselves?

The Government denial that the story was 'pure speculation' does suggest it was true, or a story that the Government and MI5 were quite happy to run. Whenever I briefed that a story was speculation what I really meant was that it was true.

True or not, why let the facts get in the way of a great yarn? The Monday papers were full of it and it helped fill them out after weeks of Royal stories.

The fact that the tube gas attack came just as Tony Blair was warning about the terrorist threat was no coincidence, and throws new light on the Home Office sending out dire warnings of attacks and then withdrawing them half an hour later.

At first this was put down to being a cock-up, but now I'm not so sure.

I reckon it was all part of the Government PR machine trying to get us so worried about the terrorist threat that we will let them get away with anything. In particular they believe it will help public opinion go in their favour over the intended war with Iraq. The two may not seem to be directly linked, but many people think that if some foreigners are trying to poison us on the London tube, then bombing a few Iraqis seems fair enough.

The Government is much more sophisticated in 'spinning' the media these days, and who better to give you a helping hand than MI5? The poison gas story is not just good for Blair - it suits MI5 too. After bugging former left wing activists for decades it now has more important things to do.

This story shows that MI5 is on the ball tracking down terrorists.

Next month the Government is launching a poster campaign warning us all to be vigilant. I don't know what the PR budget is, but it won't be that big, so free publicity in the press is not only welcome but much more effective.

One result of the tube scare story is that London has almost ground to a halt as people take to their cars, so even Livingstone will be happy, as his new car poll tax coffers will be given a boost.

The focus of the media on the terrorist enemy also had an added bonus of distracting us from the Government's 'enemy within' - the Fire Brigade Union - and its bungling of the dispute. Having reeled from the Government's PR onslaught accusing it of being 'Scargalite', this small union has been getting its own act together.

It has made clear that it is willing to talk about a figure well below the demand for £30,000. The Bain report has been shown to be a complete sham, and the union has responded to the Government's provocative suggestion that troops should break their picket lines by saying that they are happy to co-operate with troops using their fire engines, in the full knowledge that they aren't trained to use them. It was left to the Army to say that it would not be used as a political football. Even a largely hostile media has now woken up to the fact that the only reason there was a strike was because the Government blocked a 16 per cent deal.

The Government's PR machine may think it is being more sophisticated, but at the end of the day spin will never be a substitute for substance.

In the case of the terrorist threat and the firefighters pay they have been found out - by me at least.

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