Basildon’s hired spin doctor complains at “emotive” tactics of Travellers

Basildon’s Council’s hired spin doctor - on loan from the nastiest of nasty councils, Tory Westminster - complains about the “emotive” tactics of Dale Farm Travellers.

In an interview with PR Week, Basildon council’s head of communications, Cormac Smith, has today claimed there is a “huge amount of misinformation” in the media about the council’s bid to evict the 88 Irish Traveller families from the illegal Dale Farm site in Essex.

Commenting on the tactics of campaigners, Mr Smith reveals the Conservative council’s frustrations with how their PR war is going:

“I’ve got to co-ordinate the council’s comms against a group that are media savvy and very emotive…

“They are fighting on emotional terms. They use women and children to tell their story – you don’t see many men in the coverage.”

There is no mystery to this. Around 100 of the 400 or so travellers living on-site are children. Could that be why they figure prominently in the coverage?

The fact that there are so many women, children and elderly people living at Dale Farm is why the local Catholic Bishop, Thomas McMahon, describes the forthcoming eviction as a “humanitarian” issue.

Mr Smith complains that a leader column in Monday’s Guardian which referred to the travellers’ imminent eviction as ‘ethnic cleansing’ was “extremely unhelpful”.

In contrast, the council’s strategy is to emphasise “legality” and “equality” and that it is being “fair and decent”. However, it surely stretches the definition of decency to snapping point to throw 100 children onto the streets, having made no contingency for their education or welfare.

Mr Smith, it turns out, is an employee of Westminster City Council, which is currently overseeing Basildon’s PR operation. Of course right-wing Westminster is not exactly famed for its generosity when it comes to dealing with vulnerable people…

The council remains infamous for its illegal gerrymandering under disgraced former leader, Dame Shirley Porter, in the 1980s – when poorer council residents were shipped out of flats in marginal wards in order to sell their homes to more affluent (Tory) voters.

Leopards do not change their spots. Earlier this year it was revealed Westminster had threatened to introduce a byelaw banning charity soup runs for homeless people, claiming they caused litter and nuisance. After widespread opposition, the council was forced into a humiliating u-turn. Is this now the standard of PR expertise being sold to Basildon?

Rather than spend money on an expensive spin operation to justify what is beginning to look like a dogmatic plan to forcibly evict the Dale Farm travellers at all costs, Conservative-controlled Basildon council would be better off seeking a way to avoid confrontation and support the moves of the local Catholic and Anglican bishops who are working together to find a less confrontational way of resolving the impasse.

Meanwhile the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has today said the evictions should be halted until there is somewhere appropriate for the Dale Farm travellers to go. The committee says any eviction will “disproportionately affect” the lives of “women, children and older people”:

“The committee urges the state party [Basildon council] to find a peaceful and appropriate solution which fully respects the rights of the families involved.”

Cormac Smith is certainly correct about one thing, however:

“This has the potential to seriously damage the reputation of the council and, if that happens, the people who will suffer first and foremost are the residents.”

They will not only be left with an £8 million policing and clean-up bill but also a hefty invoice for PR services.

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