The “go home” campaign has the hallmarks of a classic PR stunt

Sorry, politicians don't get to use the controversy/backlash/press coverage PR ploy.

It’s among the more venerable tricks in the PR book - release an edgy ad, stir up a bit of a backlash, and use the resultant press to catapult your reach into the stratosphere at no extra cost. Shock tactics have been used to sell everything from cars to deodorant (search "Lynx Advert banned" and Google’s layout positions a number of distracting images above the nuanced comment pieces they were uploaded to illustrate). Today, however, there came a watershed moment in the influence of commercial communications on politics. When the Prime Minister’s spokesman praised the Home Office’s divisive "go home or face arrest" posters and leaflets because they were attracting “a great deal of interest,” (read: column inches) he fell within this tradition. Political comms advisers should remember they’re meant to be improving lives, not just getting noticed.

The modern appetite for controversy is huge, and not entirely a bad thing. Search engine DuckDuckGo, a wonderful product which prides itself on its privacy policy, has piggybacked with awe-inspiring shamelessness on coverage around the NSA digital spying scandal. Even the most virulent anti-capitalist had to crack a smile at Nandos’ Mugabe-baiting "Last Dictator Standing" ads. I still recall with affection my first childhood trip to an IMAX where they informed an audience of breathlessly excited kids that the screen was SO big we might ACTUALLY FAINT. If we must be bombarded with corporate messaging, I’d rather it makes me smile, or even think, as it bends my desires to the service of the combine.

However, this is one of those cases where politicians just don’t get to join the party. There are many fun things you can do as a cabinet minister: enjoy a subsidised brandy, get an ideology named after you, shout ‘hear hear hear’ without people nearby crying with embarrassment. One thing you can’t do is provoke discord for the sake of discord. The only purpose of the controversy surrounding the ads is to get commentators of the left and right making the noises the Tories want them to make. Since the intended impact on illegal immigrants relies largely on locally specific data and the immediate shock value of seeing the messages near their home, noisy coverage will make no difference to the volume of emigrations the campaign provokes.

I could be wrong - The Home Office, who devised the campaign, might be totally flabbergasted by the attention - but I don’t think so. This has all the hallmarks of a classic PR stunt. Costing a mere £10,000, its deployment in a slew of highly diverse London boroughs seems calculated to generate maximum media attention - the most "Opportunities to See" for the budget, in comms parlance. A recent Home Office report identified "medium sized towns" and "asylum dispersal areas" like Plymouth and Bolton as the places where local communities were worst affected by immigration. None of these places have the outspoken, media-friendly MPs and Councillors and nearby press presence that London does, however.

Let nobody accuse me of blandness. I used to work in PR, and I enjoyed annoying some people in order to get other people to come to theatre shows, gigs and other clients who benefited from our dark arts. The great American publicist Jim Moran once said that “it’s a sad day for American capitalism when a man can’t fly a midget on a kite over Central Park” when a judge prevented him from doing so to promote a breakfast cereal. In some ways, I agree with him, but it’s a sad day for British politics when a government department prizes white noise over targeted discussion, and decides that it doesn’t matter if a policy helps communities, makes people feel safe or even necessarily works on a basic level, as long as somebody’s watching.

Home Office. Photograph: Getty Images

Josh Lowe is a freelance journalist and communications consultant. Follow him on Twitter @jeyylowe.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder