264: The art of political deflection
When politicians come under fire for failing to deliver, they often rely on the technique of trying to shift the focus onto others. They try to lay their failures at the feet of others or they may try to change the debate entirely. The COVID-19 crisis has provided some clear examples of this.
Of all the government ministers to have, so far, had a ‘good crisis’ then there is no doubt that Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, is near the top (along with the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak). However, on this return from COVID-19 isolation, Hancock had to deal head on with the government’s failure to test for the virus despite its earlier commitments.
There was a clear plan and a classic ‘five points’ type approach. All good. But then there were the comments related to premiership footballers in the daily government briefing:
‘Given the sacrifices people are making, including some of my colleagues in the NHS, who have made the ultimate sacrifice and gone into work and caught the disease and have sadly died, I think the first thing Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution; take a pay cut and play their part.’
By doing so he was trying to do what many before him have done and deflect attention away from the government’s own immediate weaknesses. By trying to place the focus on footballers he knew he was playing into on a pre-existing general concern about the level of pay of leading footballers.
Some clubs had already put their non-playing staff on the government’s furlough scheme but some executives, such as Daniel Levy at Tottenham, appear not to have taken a cut themselves. So the pressure was already building leaving ministers free to wade in.
This is not the first time that football has received criticism. Only recently it was accused of being dependent on gambling companies. Politicians rarely seem to pick on cricket or rugby. Even following ‘Bloodgate’ and the more recent Saracens’ breaches of the salary cap in rugby, it remains football that politicians turn to (or against) presumably because of its high-profile place in national life.
But such deflection by Hancock has completely ignored the community work undertaken by football clubs, the actions by footballers such as Marcus Rashford or ex footballers such as Gary Neville. As a Liverpool supporter it would be remiss of me not to mention the consistent contributions of the likes of Sadio Mane and Mo Salah in their home countries as well.
Just as Tim Martin and Mike Ashley found themselves in the firing line of politicians, as discussed in a previous blog, now it is the turn of football.
But by deflecting in this way, Hancock has implicitly given permission for others who are not deemed to be contributing to the fight against COVID-19 to be criticised and attacked as well. What about leading business executives? What about leading politicians or ex politicians with many incomes?
The range of attack has been extended.
Why is this important? If politicians start to deflect then the risk levels increase. If you are in a relevant sector or industry then you need to be ready for incoming reputational damage. You can then decide, in advance, how you wish to react. It allows you to plan for what to do.
For instance, if the impressive testing targets being set are not met, then deflection is likely. So any organisation in any part of the supply chain needs to be ready for this to happen.
So, as a general rule, if the delivery record of government looks weak then be ready for the deflection to start.