David Gordon: the task ahead

23 Sep 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 23 Sep 2016

David Gordon, left, with the Nolan Show team

When you are working with puppets the strings should never show. That’s why the first rule for spin doctors is shape the stories and never become part of them. 

Even before David Gordon has taken up his new post running the Executive Office communications team he has been the subject of an entire episode of the Nolan Show, a programme he still nominally edits.

The fact that this has become such a big story, and that the Royal Prerogative was used to appoint him, is not Gordon’s fault, but it has become his problem, if only because it will focus so much attention on him at a time he will be learning a new job on the fly.

There’s been an awful lot of nonsense spoken and written about this in the past week or so, with many commentators suggesting that the transition will be seamless.

I’ve switched from journalism to PR and it is not. It might be the same sport, but you are playing in a different position. I’m sure it is possible for a football striker to learn to play brilliantly as a central defender, but it takes time, and given all the hoo ha, time is not on Gordon’s side.

When David Gordon applied to join the Nolan Show he told an astonished interview board: “You are in danger of becoming too respectable”.

He wanted to ruffle feathers, to give the show bite and edge. He likes that kind of thing. He defined his approach as “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted”

There is no question about it, Gordon is a tough and courageous journalist with a sharp mind and a strong grasp of policy and politics. But his life is about to change.

As spin doctor to the Executive Office he will now be explaining the inexplicable and justifying the unjustifiable, acting for the most powerful people in the land.

But that’s only the start of it. There is, always was, always will be an antipathy towards PR people amongst journalists. This transcends friendships. When I made the switch colleagues reacted with shock and some with anger. I had gone to the dark side, I was a Judas and no longer a journalist.

Ed Moloney, the former northern editor of the Sunday Tribune has been the most publicly scathing. He wrote in his Broken Elbow blog: “I can only hope that David Gordon now has the decency to quit the job. Not to do so would bestow legitimacy on a gross act of political trickery. His job is now tainted and he should not take it.”

Gordon will already be getting a bit of that at the BBC. He’s no longer one of us, he’s one of them. And he’s already learned the hard way how quickly you can transition from being a trusted colleague into a target, and that’s before he has even left the BBC payroll.

Journalism is great fun when you are writing and broadcasting stories, it is not such great craic when you are the subject of a scoop.

Another problem he is about to encounter is to do with the nature of power. The “greater” people become the more reluctant they are to admit to human frailty, making mistakes. Sometimes this instinct is so powerful that they become delusional and get angry when questioned or challenged. It is never easy to speak truth to power. This is not only applies to CEOs of big corporations but also to political leaders.

As their communications person Gordon is very soon going to become familiar with the syndrome I call the “poo sandwich.” This is where he will be expected to deliver bad, or embarrassing news so skilfully that the press and media do not pick up on it. After all he is a communications genius, or so he will be told. There is a fundamental problem with this. It doesn’t matter what kind of bread you use, whether or not it is toasted, how many slices of tomato you insert, or dollops of ketchup, if the prime ingredient is excrement, that’s what it is going to taste of. And so it is with press statements.

So unless he can engineer a fundamental shift in political culture, and good luck with that, Gordon’s out tray will be piled high with the wrong kind of sandwich.

It gets worse. The Executive Office is a coalition of two parties with fundamentally different beliefs and values, a forced marriage not a love match. Indeed, given the mutual hostility of supporters and voters it will be politically necessary for them to both work effectively together and attack one another often on the same day. David Gordon will have to act as a bridge between these factions and that is not going to be an entirely comfortable experience.

And you can add to that the fact that the parties have their own formidable press teams: neither have had especially good relations with the media down the years to put it mildly. Both will be in Gordon’s ear and they will not be speaking as one. Just thinking about that is enough to bring on a migraine.

Journalists often transition into political spin. But most of them are party supporters: Alastair Campbell and Andy Coulson for example. I’ve no idea what is any party Gordon favours. But it is not possible to support two simultaneously, so he is not going to be in the respective party machines’ inner circles. How is that going to work?

Stephen Nolan reckons that David Gordon is one of the best editors, not just in Northern Ireland but anywhere. He will be a massive loss to the show, to the BBC and to journalism.

They say Gordon is getting paid £75,000 per annum in his new post. Given all the flak he has received even before taking it up, and the scale of the task ahead, the day to day battles, the stress of it all, you do wonder whether it is worth it. Double the money and it would still not be enough.

Cynics will say that the only winners here are the DUP and Sinn Fein who have taken out one of the journalists who was asking the most awkward questions. If he really can hack it, that will be a bonus, but the prize is already won.


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