Britain's PR culture breeds corruption, just look at Hackgate

The UK phone hacking sandal has shown how the growth of the PR industry has facilitated the corruption of British society
John Brissenden
15 August 2011

PR. Those two little initials seem so harmless, don’t they? The very use of PR as a prefix seems to diminish whatever follows, by rendering it faintly ridiculous. PR person. PR stunt. Two decades later, the popular image of public relations still bears traces of the 1990s sitcom Absolutely Fabulous: all cocaine, champagne and shagging. Yet the phone hacking revelations have highlighted the function of public relations as a particular and significant vector of power relations among elites:

“The role of PR has been to facilitate an ‘institutional corruption’ in British governance, the effects of which will be with us for many years to come…A key role of the PR industry in late 20th century Britain and a condition of its spectacular growth was to make profits from, and facilitate, the marked redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.”
Miller and Dinan (2000): 29 .[1]

Recent research suggests that the industry’s growth has continued in the ensuing decade, recession notwithstanding. Not only does Britain now employ more PR people than journalists [2], but they may outnumber journalists by as much as 50 per cent [3].

PR is the recurrent theme that runs through the phone hacking saga. Many of the key figures in the scandal are, were, or latterly became PR operatives. The Prime Minister, famously, was Director of Corporate Affairs at Carlton Television from 1994 to 2001. Andy Coulson, notoriously, was hired by Cameron as Tory Director of Communications in 2007, a few months after resigning in disgrace from his editorship of the News of the World, and was subsequently retained as the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications following the 2010 General Election. Coulson’s deputy at the NOTW, Neil Wallis, was hired to provide PR support to the Director of Public Affairs at the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), Dick Fedorcio, from September 2009 to September 2010, during sick leave by Fedorcio’s deputy.  Coulson and Wallis have since been arrested and are the subject of criminal investigations. Fedorcio is currently the subject of an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), and, it has just been announced, has been put on extended leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

We should also note that the so-called Chipping Norton set has at its heart Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth and her husband Matthew Freud, recently named the country’s most powerful PR business chief.

As Aeron Davis puts it in the first of his three extensive empirical analyses of public relations and elite power, public relations aids policy making elites by “excluding the media, the general public and rival elites from knowledge of elite policy-making processes” [4].  Certainly, the picture that emerges from an examination of the public record on the phone hacking scandal shows a remarkable degree of opacity surrounding key decisions within government and the Metropolitan Police. And the role of public relations is crucial in two respects. First, in establishing the network of contacts among Westminster, the Met and News International. Second, in constructing the barriers to which Davis alludes, behind which political and media elites can conduct their business safe from public scrutiny.

Of all the PR figures embroiled in the phone hacking scandal, the most significant is Dick Fedorcio, recently described as a walking Venn diagram. Two episodes are of particular note. First is his appearance on 19 July before the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee [5], on the concluding day of its inquiry into phone hacking.  It was this session, also featuring evidence from ex-Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and ex-Assistant Commissioner John Yates, which yielded the interesting revelations, rather than the circus of the Murdochs’ appearance before the Culture Committee later that day.

Many of the MPs’ questions to Fedorcio, Stephenson and Yates centre on the recruitment of Neil Wallis as a part-time deputy for Fedorcio between September 2009 and September 2010. Wallis, remember, had been deputy editor of the NOTW at the time when even the initial, highly restricted, police investigation had found enough evidence of phone hacking to pursue a successful prosecution of Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman, as a result of which Wallis’ boss, Andy Coulson had resigned. Fedorcio hired Wallis just eight weeks after AC Yates had conducted his cursory review of revelations in the New York Times.  As the NYT recently reported:

“The announcement of Mr. Fedorcio’s extended leave suggest that as Scotland Yard is aggressively pursuing possible criminal activity at The News of the World, the police are also examining the long and cozy relationship between some of its own senior officials and the news media. Mr. Wallis, as much as anyone in the phone hacking scandal, exemplifies those overlapping relationships.” [6]

The published evidence of the phone-hacking hearings is a catalogue of denial, of key parties to this web of relationships being unaware of key facts and of ethical concerns. On 19 July, Fedorcio, Stephenson and Yates treated incredulous MPs to an often comical display of amnesia, Bambi-like naïveté and contradictory accounts. None had thought that the appointment of Wallis in 2009 might be unwise, at a time when both the NYT and The Guardian were chiselling away at the phone hacking story, until the parliamentary inquiries resumed in late 2010. Fedorcio thought that Yates had vetted Wallis. Yates thought someone else had. It didn’t occur to Sir Paul, when he met Wallis in 2006, that he might have some knowledge of the phone hacking revealed in the Information Commissioner’s report on the subject. Nor was he aware of Wallis’ business relationship with the Champneys luxury spa where he accepted £12,000 of free hospitality in early 2011.

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This is not the first time that Fedorcio has been uncomfortably close to controversy at the Met. His time as DPA also includes the period when misleading statements were made to the press in the days and weeks following the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes by Met officers, in 2005. De Menezes was shot dead on the morning of Friday, 22 July. The subsequent IPCC report [7] found Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman (remember him?) guilty of deliberately choosing to mislead the public by not telling the sub-meeting of the Management Board at 1700 that afternoon that the dead man was innocent, despite the fact that he had indeed explained this immediately prior to the meeting, in a 1630 briefing to the Crime Reporters’ Association. It was on the basis of the sub-meeting that Fedorcio and then Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, drafted the press release which was issued later that night. Fedorcio was involved in the preparation and circulation of further press statements on the Saturday which, while stating that the dead man was innocent, continued to refer to de Menezes’ clothing and behaviour as he entered Stockwell tube station, as contributory factors in the events that led to his death. These ‘contributory factors’ featured heavily in the News of the World report the next day.

Full references can be found here. Cross posted with thanks from the New Left Project.

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