Creating and Controlling a Narrative
I find it interesting when two different sides to a dispute put forward two different narratives. It’s not so much that there is a conflict going on, it’s the reasons for the narratives being played out, the way that people not only take sides but also become incredibly selective in what they will and won’t report.
Take for example, the current rumpus in Jersey. There are currently two narratives being broadcast into the media (but at this moment one of those narratives is getting much better traction than the other). The first narrative from the Diocese is that there were genuine issues with how Bob Key handled the complaint from HG. All the Diocese has been trying to do since then in commissioning two reports (Korris and Steel which is still unpublished) is make sure that safe-guarding practices are being properly followed on the island. The visitation this week by Bishops Nigel Stock and Trevor Willmott are simply part of that ongoing process. On the other side is the narrative that this has never been about safeguarding, that the Bishop’s intent all along has been to change the Canons of the Church in Jersey to get more control over the island, and that at the heart of the conflict is nothing to do with looking after people properly but rather it is just about power.
The truth is probably somewhere between the two. What is more interesting though is the way both sides have tried to control the narrative. The Diocese of Winchester from the beginning employed the London PR firm Luther Pendragon to help shape the public perception of what was going on. I want to suggest that far from being proactive in doing this they have pretty much sat back and let events take their course. I certainly have never had any proactive engagement from Pendragon (beyond being pushed press releases) and a quick check with bloggers and mainstream media folks on Jersey confirms that I am not alone in this experience.
Compare this to the “pro-Jersey” lobby (most of whom are on the island). In the past fortnight they have run an extensive and exhaustive campaign of briefings and behind-the-scenes conversations to shape the narrative as much as possible on the island. From the non-release of the Steel Report they have pushed the message that the Dean is “exonerated” (the truth of course is slightly more subtle – no charges are to be laid against Bob Key but this does not necessarily mean that the Steel Report has found him guiltless on all fronts, merely that there will be no disciplinary process) and they have added on the political pressure with questions in the Jersey States and interviews and news items on all the mainstream media outlets (BBC Radio and TV, ITV Channel News and the Jersey Evening Press). What is even more strategic is that they have already so shaped the framework for the reception of the Steel Report when (if?) it is eventually published that it almost doesn’t matter what it says – the narrative now established is that it clears the Dean and that the Bishop ****ed up big time (if you pardon my Anglo-Saxon, but as an example see this editorial in the JEP on the 4th). This is pretty much the story now as far as the media are concerned – the Bishop way overstepped his powers, has played a desparately bad game despite having a good hand, and is now paying the price for it.
It doesn’t even matter whether that narrative is actually true. Indeed, the fact that the Bishop’s narrative isn’t playing on the media at all (he has refused all interviews – go figure) practically demonstrates that he has played a bad game with what was technically a Royal Flush, and all things have followed from that, rightly or wrongly.
Back when I was a humble undergraduate (oh so long ago) our Political Theory tutor got us all to pick some atypical political texts and share them with our seminar. I decided to read Sun Tzu’s Art of War and though I didn’t appreciate it at the time (I didn’t appreciate lots of things at the time to be honest), it is easily the forerunner of Machiavelli’s The Prince, applicable not just to armed combat but also intellectual fights of all kinds. In it Sun Tzu gives the following advice.
Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.
I’m also reminded of another ancient man’s words.
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
If you want to play games my friends, make sure you have staked out the playing field before you start. If you don’t you will suddenly find that you don’t know the rules and every move you make is a foul. Next thing you know, you’re sent off and the pitch belongs to your enemies.
And not even the most expensive PR firm in the world can spin you out of that defeat.