IT was just before three in the afternoon in London on Sept 11, 2001. The Twin Towers had been in hit in New York, but were yet to collapse when Jo Moore sent an email to the press office of her department: “It’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors’ expenses?”
Moore was a Labour communications lynchpin. In September 2001, she was serving as special adviser to Tony Blair’s senior cabinet member Stephen Byers. She wrote the email after seeing images of the hijacked passenger airliners slamming into the World Trade Centre.
The next day, a couple of key decisions by Byers’s department, which could normally have resulted in criticism, went unnoticed, buried somewhere as largely insignificant ‘fillers’, because 9/11 coverage dominated more or less every column inch of newspapers.
It was about a month later, when more normal coverage resumed, that someone leaked Moore’s email to the media. It made headlines; the spin doctor’s actions created an outrage as her email was seen as distasteful and bereft of empathy on a day so many people died in the United States.
The inquiry report promises to set the news agenda in the coming days.
Moore appeared on live TV and apologised for her email. She appeared contrite, but it seems her propensity to spin stories or to ensure they received the coverage she considered most favourable to her bosses remained intact.
In November 2001, Martin Sixsmith, a former BBC journalist, was appointed communications director of the transport, local government and regions department that Byers headed as secretary of state (minister). Three months later, another row flared up in which Moore figured again.
A leak to the media on Feb 13, 2002, suggested that she had made further attempts to bury bad news — in this case, railway statistics that reflected badly on her boss — but Sixsmith put his foot down: “Princes Margaret is being buried [on Friday]. I will absolutely not allow anything else to be”.
Sixmith and Moore both denied the email, but a day later it emerged that he had indeed sent the email which carried the same message, but was worded differently. Having become so controversial, Moore opted for a career change, and by 2003, she had gone into teaching.
When exactly a week ago, the inquiry report into the sugar and wheat scandals broke, my mind went to spin doctor Moore and her antics in Byers’s department in 2001 and the following year. I recalled those events vividly.
Let me tell you why. I understand from multiple sources that ever since the army chief got his extension, he and some of his key lieutenants have been concerned about the lack of delivery and wayward governance of the PTI government.
Whenever the PTI was being criticised in the media and by the opposition, there was implicit criticism of those who had reportedly plotted the ouster of Nawaz Sharif from office and then his party’s exit from government in the elections that followed.
Before the Covid-19 crisis slammed an unprepared world, the Pakistani media was filled every day with leaks of how a change was being contemplated once again, as the powers that be were unhappy, and one heard ‘news and analyses’ of how this would be engineered.
Sometimes there was talk of an in-house rearranging of loyalties, and on other occasions, of fresh elections following such an arrangement, which would be transitory in nature. It was against this backdrop that the inquiry into the extraordinary rise in sugar and wheat prices was ordered by the prime minister.
There was another factor at play as well that many knowledgeable sources were aware of even earlier, but with the leaked report, it has exploded into the public domain. That is the ‘infighting’ among influential PTI factions.
The support of certain key civil service and intelligence bureau officers seems to have tilted the balance decisively in favour of one of the factions — for now, at least. The prime minister, for one, is happy to dispense with friends who, in his view, have become a liability.
Of course, the federal government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis, even as the Sindh and KP governments were seen to be quick on the ball, was coming in for considerable stick in the media and social media, and perhaps justifiably so.
But, far more significantly, those who hold the most critical levers of power in Pakistan were also said to be dissatisfied with the mixed signals the federal government was sending to show how it was proposing to meet the multiple challenges posed by Covid-19.
Although Covid-19 is a once-in-a-generation, even century, challenge, and would obviously keep resurfacing on a daily basis for a long time to come, if you analyse our most talked-of news stories of the week, the inquiry report edges ahead of even the health scare gripping the world.
Not just that it serves as a distraction in shifting focus away from the federal government’s shortcomings in dealing with the pandemic, it also promises to dominate the news agenda in the coming days as the prime minister has deferred any action based on the inquiry report to the receipt of the so-called forensic (follow-up) report due on April 25.
This is why I thought of Moore and how she and other spin doctors around the world manage ‘coverage’. On the one hand, the leaking of this report reinforced the impression of an uncompromising, honest leader; on the other, it shifted attention away from Covid-19 policy blunders.
But then I think of PTI spin doctors such as Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, Shahbaz Gill, Fayyazul Hasan Chohan and others, who step in from time to time. They use a sledgehammer. Such subtlety seems alien to them. So, unless the prime minister has a PR genius hidden in his office, this was just happenstance.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2020