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From the NS archive: Cod warriors

11 May 1973: There's something fishy about the trawler stand-off.

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The recent brouhaha over French fishermen blockading Jersey in a dispute over fishing rights called to mind the “cod wars” of the 1950s and 1970s. Then it was Iceland that took a stance against Great Britain over territorial fishing waters. In this piece from 1973, Richard West showed that media reports of the nautical ill-will were being filtered by a PR company. Indeed, he said, a whole series of international stand-offs, wars, and indeed countries had a PR firm attached. The British Trawlers Federation had joined the likes of Biafra, the Angolan railway system, the Greek colonels and Milton Obote of Uganda and hired a PR company to put across their perspective in the best possible light. West looked at how these companies operated and the merry-go-round of contracts and clients that changed hands between them. Here was an unexpected aspect of geopolitics. 

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The “cod war” with Iceland over the right to fish in the country's waters sounds like a public relations slogan. Indeed it is one. For no fewer than four firms of “public relations consultants” have used their ingenuity in the pay of the British Trawlers Federation (BTF). In the mid-Fifties the account was held by the American firm of Patrick Dolan Associates, who thought up a campaign to “eat fish on Tuesdays”. Unfortunately the campaign was launched just when landings of fish, except from Iceland, were in decline, so that the fishing industry had a sellers’ market. In November 1957 when Iceland was claiming larger territorial limits, Dolan lost the account to Galitzine Partners, one of whom, Colonel Chant, knew “a fair amount about Iceland” from his experience in Nato. Colonel Chant told me later that “eat fish on Tuesdays” was too like rewriting the Scriptures. Anyway, Galitzine’s now had their hands full fighting the “cod war” of words. When things got serious in the summer of 1958. Galitzine’s arranged for more than 100 journalists to cover the story from Royal Navy vessels. The agency founded a “cod club” for these journalists and presented everyone of them with a “cod tie”. The novelist Michael Frayn, who covered the “cod war” for the Manchester Guardian, told me this week: “All I remember is that some time afterwards I received a copy of Prince Yuri Galitzine’s book explaining that public relations was enlightened self-interest.” This could be one of the prince’s two books on the subject: The Basic Principles of Public Relations and The Philosophy of Public Relations.

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In political philosophy, Galitzine’s stand well to the right. The prince has gone on record as saying that he would like to represent South Africa. The company won the account for Angola’s Benguela Railway, which has been blown up by African nationalists. The Greek Colonels gave a public relations contract to Galitzine’s who arranged a series of “Greek weeks” in British provincial cities. Unhappily “Greek week” in Cambridge aroused hostility among left-wing students, who picketed a dinner at the Garden House Hotel. As a result several pickets went to prison, while Galitzine’s lost the Colonels’ account.

This setback was more than compensated for by Galitzine’s work for the winning side in the Nigerian civil war. Under the auspices of Galitzine’s, British journalists were flown out to Nigeria and lodged at the finest hotel in Lagos. Letters inspired or indeed written by Galitzine’s staff appeared in the letters columns of newspapers. Their greatest triumph was the formation of an Anglo-Nigerian Society, registered at Galtizine’s address, which was launched with a House of Commons cocktail party.

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When the “cod war” warmed up last year and the BTF decided once more to hire a public relations firm, it was thought they would turn to Galitzine’s who had argued so well for them in the past. They chose instead Prince Galitzine’s most Hated rival, the Swiss-based Markpress, who had championed the short-lived state of Biafra. Indeed Markpress, with its hail of hand-outs, battle communiques, lists of shot-down Nigerian planes became almost as famous as its Biafran clients. Two former Labour cabinet ministers have told me that Harold Wilson always justified his support for Nigeria on the grounds that the case for Biafra had been “got up” by Swiss public relations men. This belief, so damaging to its clients, was a good advertisement for Markpress.

Although Biafra lost the war, Markpress won an account from Milton Obote, the President of Uganda. Although Obote was overthrown, Markpress won an account from the Irish government for £100,000 over 18 months. In 1972 they won the BTF account for a reputed £300,000. From the start, critics complained that Markpress were trying to fight the “cod war” too much like the Biafran war. “They were still in the mentality of claiming dozens of planes shot down,” said one trade rival. By contrast with 1958, the Royal Navy was not on hand to transport a “cod club” of the press. Although journalists were offered berths in a specially chartered Dutch ship, the price demanded was thought too high.

At the end of last year, Markpress lost the account to Charles Barker City, a firm that used to specialise in financial public relations. Moreover, this week the Irish government said it would not renew its contract with Markpress, which had been strongly criticised by the pro-Icelandic Irish trawlermen. Even Iceland has now hired a PR man, Whittaker Hunt, to answer back to the BTF. “I’ve always been associated with political and industrial accounts,” Hunt told me. “I was working for Aims of Industry after the war when we did the Mr Cube campaign” – against the nationalisation of sugar. When I asked if his budget ran to £300,000, Hunt said: “Nothing like it, my God no! That would represent 30 bob per head of the population of Iceland.”

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