Backbite

I don’t know about you, but when I saw Sunday’s Observer report on Sir Tim Bell, my first thoughts were not for the man at the centre of the allegations, but of what damage the story would do to the Conservatives.

I don’t know about you, but when I saw Sunday’s Observer report on

Sir Tim Bell, my first thoughts were not for the man at the centre of

the allegations, but of what damage the story would do to the

Conservatives.



The Observer believes its actions will harm both Bell and the

Government. The newspaper trumpeted its front-page story and the extract

from Mark Hollingsworth’s book on Bell, the Ultimate Spin Doctor, with

the words: ’This article will give him a PR problem of his own.’



If this is true, Bell’s problem is also the Tories’ problem, since he is

at the heart of the Conservatives’ election campaign team. How can the

Tories employ such a man? How will this go down in the Shires?



If Hollingsworth is to be believed, Norman Tebbit didn’t want to use

Bell’s talents in 1987 precisely because he feared the answers to those

questions. Coming now, rather than in 1987, after a period in which

’Tory sleaze’ has become as common an insult as ’loony Left’ once was,

you might expect the allegations to be even more damaging. Will Labour

and its agency, BMP DDB, seek to turn the Tories’ former trump card into

its joker?



At first, I was tempted to think they should. Here, I thought, was

ultimate proof of the Conservatives’ hypocrisy. But then I realised that

most of the public has never heard of Bell. The fact that we all have,

and therefore find the story both fascinating and titillating, blinds us

to this truth.



Even if this were about a politician, I’m not sure what damage it would

do. The ’sleaze effect’ has meant that the public no longer expects its

elected representatives to behave impeccably. So how much lower are its

expectations of advertising executives? Why should it care what they got

up to in the 80s? At times, this industry - and not least the

journalists who write about it - has an overblown sense of its own

importance.



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