Paula Keaveney: Why have so many fallen for Richard Branson's spin?
Am I the only person who wonders why so many have fallen so completely for the spin of Richard Branson?
I listed to the multi millionnaire himself on Radio 4 over the bank holiday and there was a tone I couldn't place. I realised afterwards it was the sound of whining.. the sort of "its not fair" you often get from children or teenagers.
It's one thing to complain if the rules of a process have been broken and you have lost out. Or if the rules changed and you weren't told. Or if the rules were simply ignored.
But unless I am missing something we are talking here about a process which was followed and which Virgin entered and the "unfairness" is that someone else won.
There is no doubt about it, Virgin has excellent PR and it is this PR that has caused so much comment.(In fact I recall Virgins PR towards the start of this process with a story in the local media in Liverpool about proposed changes to the service.)
I have bought tickets from this monopoly supplier in the past so they have a work e mail address for me. And so like many others I got e mails.. firstly asking me to celebrate the last 15 years and then asking me to join a campaign. The approach was very much making me want to feel (an emotional appeal rather than a rational one) that Virgin was part of my life and I musn't lose it. ( I would actually quite like to lose the memory of nearly two hours on Wolverhampton Station in the middle of the night courtesy of a Virgin train problem but let's not fixate on anecdotes)
What if Virgin had won? Wwould we be hearing similar calls for a delay, for Parliamentary scrutiny and so on?
Now don't get me wrong. I actually believe Parliament should take a long hard look at this whole process business. In fact the Transport Select Committee appears to be in the middle of something that sounds like that with its Rail 2020 inquiry. And as a nation we need to think about whether railways are a public good (in which case a decent level of subsidy is what we need along with decisions which are not purely financial) or a service for sale (in which case its all about the actual consumer rather than the wider public). But this is not what is being asked for. Instead we hear that Parliament should be able to examine this particular contract.
I nearly laughed out loud at one of Richard Branson's suggestions. This was that the decision had been somehow sneaked out in the summer to avoid attention. Well as any trainee journalist or budding PR knows, you get more attention for stories in the summer simply because there is usually a shortage of news. I remember this story leading the BBC Radio News bulletins. In fact because the decision was trailed, by leak or otherwise, it led the news on two separate days. And Branson himself got one of the coveted Today programme time slots (not the usual 6 15 am business section).
He also seemed to be claiming that Government and Politics effectively stops over the summer. Well select committees are able to publish reports over the summer (two this week for example) and MPs are always telling us that the recess is not one long holiday. Does anyone really think that everything stops because the Prime Minister is on holiday? I have plenty of memories of Labour cabinet members being put in charge during Tony Blair's vacations and this Government is no different. Even if the Prime Ministers personal imprimatur is really needed we do these days have things called telephones.
Virgin does well in PR terms because it deliberately personalises the brand. Ryan Air does the same to a lesser extent (I am frequently amazed at the lack of negative coverage of that airline but its easier to deflect criticism if you've got a likeable bloke fronting things personally).
But putting all of that aside, for me this episode has shown politics at its worst. If the Labour party really cares about the railway service then why can I only find transport statements at times when the bandwagon is near. The future of the railways is a big important issue that needs time and space to be discussed and thought about.. Has Labour used any of its opposition time in Parliament to actually raise this as an issue and really get to the bottom of the structural and other complexities? Err no because there are no soundbites in that! (This isn't of course just a Labour party problem - its symptomatic of the way we do politics. I've deliberately used a couple of descriptions in this piece to "soundbite-up" my writing).
I worried that I was being unfair on the Labour party so I looked for the most recent opposition initiated rail related debates either in the main chamber or in Westminster Hall and I looked for the Labour conference agenda. The agenda can't be found on line as yet and the most recent rail debate initiated by Labour or by a Labour MP was one on line-side vegetation moved by London MP Jeremy Corbyn.
Of course politicians have a clear representative role in making sure that the travelling public are not short-changed, that Cities and towns have the rail links they need, that travel is accessible and so on. And I hope that our representatives, whether they are local Councillors or MPs, will do that.
But preventing a contract for non criteria reasons is not good politics or good policy.
And if the criteria are wrong let's change them for the future rather than spend time as an adjunct to one company's publicity machine.
Paula Keaveney is a former Liverpool Lib Dem Councillor and Group leader and currently lectures in Public Relations at Edge Hill University. She blogs HERE.