Editorial: Smoke without fire can hurt your image

After its humiliating U-turn over tobacco sponsorship of Formula 1 racing, Labour has found itself caught in a public relations paradox.

After its humiliating U-turn over tobacco sponsorship of Formula 1

racing, Labour has found itself caught in a public relations


In handing back F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone’s donation to the party,

Labour can at least claim to have followed Lord Nolan’s view that, even

if there has been no wrongdoing, the perception that there could have

been is enough to require action. But this is clearly


Reason suggests that if the Government had been induced into exempting

F1 racing by Ecclestone’s generosity then ministerial heads should

tumble in disgrace, but if there was no wrongdoing then returning the

money serves no purpose except to heighten suspicion.

And yet, having helped to create a political climate where appearance is

deemed more important than reality, not returning the donation would

have been equally damaging in PR terms. So the Government is damned

whatever it does.

There is no way out of this mess under the current system for funding

political parties. Much attention has been focused on the size of the

donation made by Ecclestone. But this is also a moral quagmire.

Churchill is reported to have once asked a woman whether she would sleep

with a man for pounds 1,000. The woman replied blushingly that she might

consider it. The great man then asked whether she would do so for ten


Outraged, she demanded to know what kind of a woman he thought she


Madam, he replied, we have established the principle, now we are merely

haggling over the price.

So what of donors who give more trifling sums to political parties? Is

there a magic figure above which the potential for corruption exists,

but below which all intentions must be deemed honourable?

Anyone who donates money to Labour, and who subsequently lobbies the

Government on an issue, can presumably expect a curious result from now

on. If the Government decides in your favour, you will get your money

back. If however they decide against your case, the party gets to keep

the cash.

So, having seen accusations that the Government may have been influenced

to decide in favour of a donor, will we in future see accusations that

the Government deliberately took decisions to spite major donors in

order that the party should not have to give their cash back?

The Government and its standards watchdogs have tied themselves up in

knots because of their obsession with appearances. But, as any PR person

knows, tinkering with perceptions without fixing the reality of the

problem only makes things worse.

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