My 21 years as a press secretary reminds me of Britain’s relationship
with the Commonwealth, which is about to hold another biennial bash in
New Zealand. After attending six of them, I concluded that the Brits’
role in life, as the ex-colonial power, was to be abused at every turn
by the 49 other members who would then hold out their hands for more of
our hard-earned brass. Press officers, learning how to survive in the
media jungle, know the feeling.
This year’s Commonwealth conference will be overshadowed by radio chat
show host Pierre Brassard securing a 14-minute conversation with the
Queen, the head of the Commonwealth, by impersonating the Canadian Prime
Minister, Jean Chretien. Who is next for hoaxing?
Of course, after the initial witch hunt over who was responsible for
this spectacular lapse in security, everyone is now trying to laugh it
off. M. Brassard’s a bit of a card who has conned others, including the
Pope. He didn’t do any harm, did he? In fact, he did the Queen a bit of
good. Didn’t she do well? And isn’t it marvellous that we now know how
the Queen talks to one of her Prime Ministers? Etc, etc.
Bunkum. At the risk of sounding pompous, all this misses the point. M.
Brassard earns his living from a reputation built upon carefully
contrived deceit of the rich and famous. Indeed, he wins his 1.3 million
drive-time Canadian audience by the hope - nay, the expectation - that
he will take some dignitary for, preferably, an embarrassing and even
constitutionally damaging ride. This is not what talk radio is supposed
to be about - or to encourage.
I am not surprised that the British media have had difficulty in
recognising the dangers inherent in M. Brassard. After all, they are not
above a bit of deceit themselves. In fact, the old Press Council, no
less, excused the Sunday Times for breaking into Denis Thatcher’s
Barclays bank account, in pursuit of Mark Thatcher, with the immortal
words ‘permissible subterfuge’.
Nothing is more calculated to get journalists on their high horse than
what they think is a juicy Government phone tapping scandal. Yet what
happened to my celebrated row with the BBC down the line from Port
Stanley when they were preventing ITN securing their pictures of
Margaret Thatcher’s visit to the Falklands in 1983? Why, someone taped
the entire stormy conversation and my follow-up call to No 10 to report
the outcome. And Channel 4 broadcast the lot. The media obviously thinks
some phone calls are more tappable - and broadcastable - than others.
It is time the media sorted out their ideas. Their double standards, not
to mention arrogance, do them no good. Their reaction to M Brassard is
not what any self-respecting strategic PR man would have advised.