As a journalist I deal on a daily basis with public relations professionals. Some are deliberately obstructive, and a few are just completely useless. But the majority do their job well, which is to represent their organisations to media and public, and disseminate information, even if this is manipulated so as to present their employers in the best possible light.
Consider two of the PRs currently doing the rounds in Beijing. Wang Wei is China’s official spokesman for the Beijing Olympic Games, and Giselle Davies – daughter of BBC sports commentator Barry Davies – is communications director for the International Olympic Committee (proprietor: Jacques Rogge). However, despite a formidable reputation built while running the press office of the Jordan Formula One team, it appears that Davies is no match for at least some of the stroppy hacks assembled in Beijing.
Davies’ performance at yesterday’s press conference was extraordinary. Her response to Channel 4’s reporter Alex Thomson involved reading from a mental script in a monotonic voice, with answers that bore no relation whatsoever to the questions asked.
Now I weary of people talking about the famed “tenacity” of British journalists. Thomson was simply doing his job, and doing it very well from what I could see.
Here is a transcript of part of the exchange between Thomson and Davies:
ALEX THOMSON: “I’m asking the IOC if they are in any way embarrassed about the manifest failure on behalf of the Chinese Government to keep their promises?
“It’s a very straightforward question. Are you embarrassed?”
GISELLE DAVIES: “We are very proud of the fact that these games are progressing with spectacular sport, spectacular sports venues, operationally running very smoothly. And that’s what we’re here focusing on.”
I’m asking you whether you’re embarrassed, I’m not asking about how well the Games have been run or how wonderful the venues are. Are you embarrassed?”
GISELLE DAVIES: “I think I’ve answered your question by explaining…”
ALEX THOMSON: “I don’t think anyone in this room. I may speak, I may be stepping out of line but I don’t think anybody thinks you’ve answered the question.
“Is the IOC embarrassed about the Chinese Government not keeping those promises?”
And so it went on. Several times Thomson repeated the question, and each time did Davies – Buddha-like in her composition and serenity – stonewall him. It wasn’t even a particularly skilled performance on her part, and other hacks in the hall were heard shouting at the IOC representative to answer Thomson’s questions.
But then something even more extraordinary happened. Wang stepped in, appeared to go completely off-script, and spoke his brains.
While it makes a pleasant change to witness a Chinese official speak in a way that suggests he hasn’t been totally assimilated by the Beijing Borg, it must be said that Wang’s little rant is full of crap. Ignoring for one moment the numerous injustices perpetrated against Beijing citizens in order to create a flawless public image for China during the Olympics, Wang is on-record in 2001 as having made specific promises. Such as:
“We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China.”
And the reality of the Beijing games? Journalists have this week been arrested and beaten, websites blocked, contrary to written agreements on press freedom during the games, and much more. On Wednesday reporters were forbidden from asking a Georgian athlete about his thoughts for countrymen involved in the military conflict with Russia. Not even the most basic humanitarian sentiment is allowed from athletes; all we get instead are the most anodyne comments.
It was bad enough last week when obsequious IOC chief Rogge was publicly brown-nosing his Chinese hosts. But the Olympic Games have now turned into a complete PR farce.
As for Ms Davies, I would imagine that the events of yesterday have left her thoroughly tainted as far as the Olympics are concerned. If the members of the IOC have any sense they will place a paper bag over their communications director’s head for the duration of the games, and themselves keep a very low profile indeed.
And when it’s all done and dusted, I see an opportunity for Giselle Davies in the Downing Street press office. Until the next general election, that is. Davies has an undoubted talent; I doubt that even Jeremy Paxman could extract meaningful information from this woman.