The mundane can be perfect defence

What connects MPs and nuclear power besides the National Grid? It is the absolute need for public trust through openness. What is curious is that it is the nuclear boys who have lessons for MPs.

Mike Granatt
Mike Granatt

Consider the House of Commons, still struggling to withhold details of MPs' expenses. This is despite the damaging evidence to their credibility, and the futility of the fight.

Of course, the die was cast when MPs themselves passed the FOI Act. It was polished to a gleam when Scottish Parliamentarians decided to put all their claims on the internet.

Even so, MPs lost the plot. One reason was their resentment at being told to change the rules in the one place where they assume complete authority. Another was their correct assumption that many FOI demands in this area are not driven by the public interest, but the wish to feed the vicarious interest of the public.

But ultimately MPs will not win, so the real challenge is to find a practical way of dealing with this insatiable appetite for trivial embarrassments. The answer is to blunt the beast's appetite with excess and routine. The initial pain barrier is worth crossing, as the nuclear industry learned years ago.

Back in the early '50s, atomic power was a source of national pride and authority. When the Queen opened the Calder Hall power station, an HMSO paperback spelled out its design and purpose, including its part in weapons production.

But by the '80s, nuclear power was controversial, despite the separation of the military programme. Plagued by a stream of leaks about so-called 'incidents', resentful nuclear managers drew into their shells, fuelling more suspicion.

Almost all of the incidents were trivial, quarried from the meticulously completed Sellafield accident book. A classic example was the upsetting of a mop and bucket being used to clear up a puddle outside a building. By the time the story reached The Guardian, it was a 'new Sellafield accident'.

In the end, British Nuclear Fuels was persuaded to get on the front foot by putting every single safety incident into a monthly press release. In month one, the media had a field day. Three months later boredom reigned supreme.

Mike Granatt is a partner at Luther Pendragon and former media adviser at the House of Commons.

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