Beware of those who won’t appear themselves

In an ideal world, politicians, business leaders will stop stories getting into the public domain at all.

They will threaten to withdraw advertising (the Telegraph and HSBC are far from the only instances), they will try to block or intimidate whistleblowers or use the courts to censor not only the press but Parliament itself – look up how Trafigura tried to do this:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/oct/16/trafigura-carter-ruck-the-guardian.

But, most of the time, silence is not an an option. So those in power resort to other strategies.

An increasingly popular approach is to issue a statement. Organisations like doing this as it can’t be challenged directly and if it is not reported in full, they can complain of press bias.

The statements are quite an art. The skill is to respond to a specific complaint with a general statement. If a council is challenged about an error in issuing a parking ticket, it usually responds with a general policy comment – as with every statement I make, there are examples I will publish in due course.

Sometimes they use incomprehensible gibberish as the NHS did when challenged about how it makes decisions on treatments for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

I can’t resist sharing these words.

“At the last public meeting of the NHS England Board, it was agreed to create a new specialised services committee of the board and, as a consequence, to review the current governance arrangements covering this aspect of NHS England’s work.

It was decided to undertake a public consultation on the future approach of prioritising new services within specialised commissioning. This will be considered at the December NHS England Board meeting. For that reason the CPAG meeting scheduled for this week has been postponed but NHS England remains on track to make funding decisions on specialised commissioning in time for the 2015/16 commissioning round.”

However this can be counter-productive. There is a growing tendency for broadcasters to point out bluntly when organisations refuse to appear in person.

To counter this more and more trade associations are appearing – these include the British Bankers Association or the Association of British Insurers.

The tactic is the same as when a statement is issued. As they represent an industry not a company, they refuse to answer specific questions, creating the impression of accountability while doing the precise opposite.

On the day that the Francis report said that NHS staff who blew the whistle on substandard and dangerous practices lived in a “climate of fear,” Chris Hopson the chief executive of NHS Providers failed to answer direct questions and instead talked about other positive things the NHS was doing – one of the most vacuous performances so far this year.

Faced with John Humphries’s direct questions on the subject he insisted that “what we tend to miss on days like this is the broader context – and here are three things we are not going to hear today but we should.”

Those, he argued, were the fact that only 0.06 per cent of the million front line patient transactions on the front line every 36 hours ended in complaints; that the NHS was rated highly in patient surveys and that an American think tanks said the NHS was the safest in the world.

And he kept parroting this out every time a direct question was asked. His points were relevant to a general story on the NHS but crude professional evasion in this case.

He is no worse than any other trade association representative – and I will in due course put a transcript of his appalling performance up here.

So, in summary really look carefully when an organisation puts up a statement or a trade association spokesman instead of one of its senior executives.

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