The PR business has a lot of honest, hard-working individuals in it, people who are paid to propagate a particular point of view, and do it through persuasion, argument and a bit of old fashioned hoopla from time to time. But there is another side to PR these days, one invented, to a great extent, by an ex-journalist, Alastair Campbell. It is called spin and unless I am sadly mistaken we are about to be engulfed by it as Imperial College becomes ever more desperate to force through its grandiose, ugly ambitions for Wye.
If you want to understand what spin is just think of what happened in the unfortunate aftermath of the David Kelly affair, the sad tale of the government scientist who killed himself after being exposed — by the government — as the source of briefings to the BBC. That began as a story about the misgivings many in power felt about the war in Iraq, and the dreadful suicide of David Kelly himself.
Then Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s spin-meister came on the scene. A few months down the line the BBC had lost its chairman, director general, several senior journalistic staff and a big chunk of its journalistic reputation. And in government? Not a single sacking or demotion, or the slightest hint that something might somehow have gone wrong.
How did Campbell achieve this? In the selfsame way Imperial and its foot soldiers intend to pull the wool over your eyes when it comes to Wye Park. Campbell changed the focus, from Kelly, his death and his allegations. Instead he focused, relentlessly, on the fact that the BBC had made a single slip-of-the-tongue editorial mistake, in one radio broadcast, issued around six in the morning and corrected immediately afterwards. The real story got buried as Campbell fought and fought to turn attention away from the government and onto the BBC’s use of ‘our licence money’ to put out flaky journalism.
This is the oldest trick in the spinner’s book. And you can see it already rearing its hideous head in Wye. There seems to be an inexplicable desire in some quarters to complicate this issue, with village statements and other new age nonsense that will surely turn off the average resident who thinks he or she has better things to do. But at heart this is a very simple issue. It comes down to a simple question: Do you believe Imperial should be allowed to turn over the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to commercial development?
This is not rocket science. It’s a very simple way of drawing a line in the sand, one that says to Imperial and its followers: this far and no further. They hate it, of course, for several reasons. The primary one is that it has always come with the rider that we’d all like to see a renewed college presence — perhaps another college — in Wye, and that denies them the chance to portray everyone who is anti-Wye Park (i.e. pretty much the entire village population) as selfish Nimbies.
So what do you do? What Alastair Campbell would. You shift the focus. And that is where the talk comes in about the ‘positive’ side of Imperial’s ambitions. What about ‘affordable housing for local young families’? What about it? The chances of that happening in a way that benefits the people of Wye are slim in the extreme as we have already detailed. What about the level crossing and the state of the roads coming into the village? What about an ‘arts and heritage centre’?
Well, the arts and heritage centre apart, these are all genuine issues worthy of debate. But one thing links them all. They have absolutely nothing to do with Imperial College. If the village needs an ‘arts and heritage centre’ now, it surely needed one a year. So why were your local representatives not jumping up and down and demanding it then, with the subsequent increase on the rates? Why on earth should it take a massive construction project — one which will surely turn today’s minor traffic annoyances into utter chaos — to come along and supposedly fix these small and common issues?
It doesn’t of course. Spinning is about hiding things, not revealing them. Those who play this game want to divert you from the main story, and fill your head with FUD — Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. Because if they succeed in doing that, you will forget what this was all about in the first place… Imperial’s attempt to overturn all standard practice in the planning process and environmental protection for the countryside and replace our community with a new town built to the order of Professor Sir Richard Sykes.
And it that wasn’t bad enough, here is the nastiest, most shameful thing that the spin meister want to do too. By moving the focus onto unrelated issues they turn the tables on their opponents. Suddenly, people who want to stop Imperial building on the AONB are set on the defensive. We’re the ones who don’t want affordable housing, the people who think the traffic situation shouldn’t be improved, the miseries who are against the village having an ‘arts and heritage centre’. They will press this point time and time again, through their own network, and through the mouths of any local representative who’s decided to throw in their lot with them.
Do not be fooled. Imperial College is not embarked upon this project to improve our roads, our cultural facilities, or our housing stock. It wants to make money, and intends to do so by destroying the countryside and the community we cherish. In the months — and possibly years to come — we will face many attempts to bury those hard and incontrovertible facts in jargon and processes and legalese. But this is not about rural regeneration, local development frameworks, non-food research or an arcane planning and legal process that seems principally to exist to provide employment for those working inside it. Imperial College has embarked upon an attempt to destroy some of the most highly protected countryside in Britain, and the village of Wye as we know it. Let’s make sure no-one ever forgets that.