OPINION: Media turn T5 crisis into a soap opera

Many of the scathing headlines on the chaotic opening of Heathrow's Terminal Five were deserved.

Ian Monk
Ian Monk

Proverbial bucketloads were tipped over senior heads by a gloating media wreaking incalculable long-term reputational damage.

However, the devastating coverage was not limited to baggage mountains, cancelled flights and broken computers. By Sunday, the media had used the debacle to declare open house on the reputations of both BA and BAA.

Hence we learned from the Sunday Mirror that BA bosses had spent the opening day partying and quaffing champagne just yards from where the passenger misery was unfolding. The Mail on Sunday turned its investigative skills to 'exposing' the fact that BAA's head of Heathrow security is a woman who had only six years previously been an airport shop store detective. And - here lies the intrigue - Ms Donna Boote shares a £1.2m home with Heathrow's MD.

It is a fair bet that the career path and living arrangements of two senior BAA executives would not have normally warranted coverage.

The Mail on Sunday's printed rationale for its story is worthy of inclusion in every crisis management manual. It set out the media justification for exploiting a crisis to unearth anything salacious, however tenuous its link to the main issues.

Of Ms Boote, the paper noted: 'Airport authorities refused to answer questions about the couple's relationship ... however, in light of the security chief's rapid promotion and her relationship with the MD, we must raise questions about Spanish-owned BAA's suitability to run Britain's biggest airport.'

In other words, these things would normally be considered private matters. But give us a crisis and we have the right to intrude.

None of this mitigates the fact that the whole sorry tale has been a PR disaster. The uneasy truce between the BA and the BAA comms operations reached breaking point while rivals Virgin put the boot in, and the media played the blame game.

Banning TV cameras meant that the BBC could report the story as if war crimes were occurring behind closed doors, rather than massive incompetence. It was humiliating for BA, having publicly offered stranded passengers a daily hotel allowance of £100, then having to increase this because European regulations state that no limits are applicable.

T5 allowed the media, which prosper from turning crises into dramas, to transform the Heathrow saga into a soap opera that denigrated the UK in the eyes of a global audience.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly a senior newspaper executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.

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