Books: A Point of View: Reputational Damage |
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Reputational Damage : on government additions to our language

(S05E04, broadcast 17th and 19th April 2009)

"Just what is 'reputational damage'?"

A new phrase got into the language this week: ‘reputational damage’. People high in the Labour Party have warned the Prime Minister, Mr Gordon Brown, that the next election might be hard to win because the party suffered reputational damage after it was revealed that Damian McBride, a senior aide of Mr Brown, had it in mind to spread misinformation on the Web in order to make life uncomfortable for Tory politicians.

Though called a senior aide, Mr McBride is only thirty-four years old, but in a short career he got plenty of practice at spinning the press against Mr Brown’s original enemies, who were all in the Labour Party, before he moved on to greater glory as one who might spin the press against the Conservative Party. At first blush, the inventions he proposed to circulate this time were merely infantile. He was only going to suggest that there were photographs in existence that might embarrass a certain front-bench Tory. He wasn’t going to suggest that the same front-bench Tory had begun his career as Osama bin Laden’s mistress. But when you think about it, it’s the seemingly innocuous vagueness of the suggestion about photographs that makes it dangerous, because it could so easily be true.

I should say at this point that there are photographs of me in existence that would cause me embarrassment if they were published. In the photographs I am semi-naked. There is a rug involved, and a bottle. By the time the photos were published, it would be getting a bit late for me to protest that I was less than a year old at the time they were taken.

What Mr McBride was after was the opportunity to stir things up. We don’t have to believe that Mr Brown knew what Mr McBride was up to in order to wonder how he, Mr Brown, could ever, in the past, have had anything to do with such a man. That the incident had caused the Labour Party reputational damage was the least the Labour bigwigs could say. That it was also the most they could say opens up another question which we might get to later, after further examining this government’s gift for coining original language.

For now, let’s celebrate the fact that the government is yet again the source of a whole new phrase. It has a reputation for giving us new phrases, and if it ceased to do so it might suffer reputational damage. So far there has been no sign that it will cut back on the supply. This government brings us a new phrase almost every month, usually to deal with the consequences of fresh disasters happening at the same rate. The poor become the socially excluded, and a prison riot becomes a challenging incident. After the collapse of the stock market, the government gave us the new phrase ‘quantitative easing’ as a term meant to cover the complex business of putting money into the economy so as to offset the effects of the economic crisis. There were some who said that quantitative easing was actually a term covering the simple business of printing more money, a process which was bound to exacerbate the effects of the economic crisis.

Perhaps because there were at least two interpretations of what the term might mean, the term quantitative easing has been slow to catch on. ‘Reputational damage’, however, could have a more solid career, because there is not much doubt about what it means. There is only doubt about whether people who find it necessary to use such language are really very wise. If they ever had a reputation for wisdom, should they be allowed to retain it after they are caught using a phrase like reputational damage? Before getting to that crucial point, we should define the term reputational damage as clearly as possible, by stating forcefully that in order for reputational damage to occur, there must first be a reputation.

From that angle, the case of Assistant Commissioner Quick, a case which hogged the media for several days recently, will not quite do. A/C Quick, you will recall, was to play a leading role in a large-scale police operation meant to foil a suspected Al-Qa’ida threat against this country. A/C Quick, however, inadvertently modified his leading role by getting himself into a position where he could be photographed holding, in plain view, a document listing the key details of the operation. The mere possibility of this information ceasing to be secret was enough to ruin the timetable of the operation and his career along with it.

But we should be careful, here, about saying that reputational damage had occurred. In the eyes of journalists, anyone who does any job at all is always called a mastermind up until the moment when he puts his foot in it. Indeed he usually goes on being called a mastermind even afterwards, and so it was with A/C Quick in the eyes of at least one newspaper. The newspaper was suitably enraged at the size of the pension that the A/C would take with him into the private sector, but the newspaper strangely added the following: ‘He will also expect to find lucrative work advising both the private and public sectors on security which could give him an extra six-figure income. His expertise in counter-terror operations will make him a valuable consultant to the organizers of the 2012 London Olympics.’ These later statements depended on the assumption that A/C Quick’s reputation as a security mastermind — a reputation which he had undoubtedly possessed, or he would not have attained such rank — had somehow survived his achievement in blowing security entirely on the most serious counter-terror operation currently in the works. The assumption seemed very large. Surely the poor man’s reputation had not been damaged in a way from which it might recover. It had been destroyed entirely.

If your job is to keep secrets and you are caught conspicuously not keeping them, your reputation is over. The question shifts focus: from you, the individual, to the institution you belong to, which in the case of A/C Quick was the Metropolitan Police Force. Here indeed was a case of reputational damage. The Met suffers damage to its reputation every time the wrong person gets shot, or a man in the vicinity of a demonstration is struck from behind and ends up dead, or even when an innocent person merely gets humiliated, because to that person and those who know him there is no ‘mere’ about it.

When the police mess up, there are always two main critical views, the reformist and the revolutionary. The reformist view is that everything should be done to make the police perform better, so as to guard society from breakdown. The revolutionary view is that everything should be done to ensure that they perform worse, so as to reveal the true nature of a repressive mechanism without which society would flourish in freedom. Which of those two views you take is really the decisive question about your personal politics.

But if you really deplore police mistakes instead of welcoming them as evidence that your radical views are correct, then you must believe in the concept of an institution’s reputation, and in the possibility that it can be damaged. The question then becomes one of how much damage is too much. The different branches of the Christian Church all cultivate a reputation for mercy, in keeping with the charitable personality of the Son of God. At various times in history, less frequently of late, the reputation for mercy has been compromised by a tendency to persecute disbelievers, but one way or another the reputation survives. Almost always the recovery of the reputation involves the repudiation of past excesses on the part of zealots. When it comes to the activities of Mr McBride, the Labour Party is in the position of repudiating a zealot. It won’t be enough to say, well, everybody does it, even though almost everybody does.

Among the Watergate conspirators whose activities doomed Richard Nixon’s presidency, Donald Segretti was a clever young fellow who had been making mischief since college. He had a reputation for being an especially clever dirty tricks merchant, but his reputation for being especially clever did not survive his getting caught. When President Clinton was in the White House, the Republican National Committee did their best to surround him with a cloud of rumour even more dense than the one he would have generated naturally all by himself. Those involved had learned the lesson taught by Donald Segretti: they didn’t expect to retain their reputation for cleverness if their names became known.

What we have here, in the case of Mr McBride, is one whose reputation was for being a clever manipulator. But he was caught at it, so, although his reputation as a manipulator might survive, his reputation for being clever is gone. I saw one newspaper report in which it was confidently asserted that Mr Brown found Mr McBride valuable because of his political astuteness and his gift for economics. We are now free to wonder if Mr Brown’s trust in those qualities was ever very well founded, but whatever we wonder, we won’t be wondering about Mr McBride’s reputation. Only a very small child, after the ice cube melts, wonders if the ice cube is still in existence somewhere else.

But for the government, the question of reputational damage is real. The government might find it easier to get some of its reputation back if it could avoid coining silly new language in the attempt to soften each new setback. The phrase ‘reputational damage’ is meant to have a scientific air, as if it referred to something that was bound to happen. But there is no such thing as reputational damage. There is only reputation, which can indeed be damaged, and can be restored only if somebody talks straight.


Under New Labour the English language suffered from the kind of inflation in which the banks control the Mint. It was a time of phrases fine yet hollow. ‘Reputational damage’ was only one of them, and unusual in being easily decoded. ‘Sustainable growth’ was more typical: it meant nothing at all, but seemed to promise a sense of responsibility. A/C Quick’s folder marked SECRET was a symbol for the age, as pointlessly self-publicizing as the legendary sign at the golf club that said nothing except ‘Do not lean golf bags against this sign.’ After a lifetime of trying, and finally forced into extreme compression through lack of space, I achieved, with my brief paragraph about the difference between the reformist view and the revolutionary view, an evocation as neat as I could ever get of the political gulf lying behind Lenin’s famous statement: ‘The worse, the better.’ Lenin was the revolutionary and Kerensky was the reformist. Perhaps partly by nature, I have always been a Kerenskyite, even when I was young, foolish and fulminating about the machinations of the System. Surrounded by clever Leninists, I had to get used to being patronized, but I could already see a basic difference in attitude, and even in personality: whereas Kerenskyites would like to see Leninists locked up, Leninists would like to see Kerenskyites dead.

Apart from its efficacious ruthlessness, one of the chief advantages of the Leninist disposition is that it lasts longer. The Che Guevara beret is never really discarded. Though it might be taken off the head, it continues to be worn internally between the skull and brain, thus to heat the thoughts. In the period under review, the successor to the Che beret was the Hugo Chavez sweatshirt, which heated the heavy breathing. Western mouthpieces of surprising seniority were quick to tell you that Chavez was the saviour of his nation. Even worse, they were slow to stop telling you. My references, in this and other broadcasts, to the depredations of the Republican National Committee will tip off the attentive that I had read and admired The Clinton Wars, by Sidney Blumenthal: the kind of book that the Americans do so much better than we do there is no contest.