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The fire dispute has provoked an outbreak of bitterness and spin best summed up in a Sunday Telegraph headline: 'Fi...
The fire dispute has provoked an outbreak of bitterness and spin best summed up in a Sunday Telegraph headline: 'Fire and Loathing'.

The breakdown unleashed a torrent

of spin and lashings of mixed metaphors from a furious government. The employers had put forward 'uncosted, half-baked proposals' that amounted to a bouncing 'blank cheque' which did nothing to deal with unmodernised practices 'set in formaldehyde'.

Fire-fighters' union leader Andy Gilchrist wrote to The Telegraph about the difficulties of dealing with 'an inflexible government seemingly unable to think on its feet and smell the coffee before 9am', a reference to John Prescott's alleged unavailability to sanction an early morning resolution to the negotiations.

Mr Gilchrist bore the main brunt of personal abuse. He might as well have been named 'Antichrist'. The Telegraph reported Blair's advisers had warned him Mr Gilchrist had a poster of Che Guevara in his office and shared this admiration for 'the 1960s icon of the radical left' with train drivers' leaders Mick Rix and Bob Crow. For further proof of guilt by association, it came with the revelation that Mr Rix has a dog called Che.

The BBC described Gilchrist as

'a cannier operator than many give him credit for', noting he gave 'a calm and considered' explanation of his case in

a briefing with political journalists in the House of Commons. The success of

this was judged by the barometer of

Mr Prescott's anger in the Commons later that day, which was considerable.

This assured media handling came before Gilchrist's ill-considered statement that he wanted to 'replace' New Labour with 'Real Labour'. The Times reported the government's view that Mr Gilchrist had 'lost the plot', going on to predict that he 'could also lose the war'. Mr Gilchrist's TUC colleagues deserted him, if you believed The Sun, or rallied round, if you preferred The Mirror.

After a shaky start, the government spin machine made wide use of the media to promote the argument that the army was coping magnificently, running the proposed joint control room, when not sitting around all night playing cards and drinking tea to demonstrate the easy life of the average fire-fighter.

It all made an interesting case study

of the government's tortured and ambiguous relationship with the media. The Times commented that 'an effective politician needs a bogeyman' and

Mr Gilchrist was that man. There is no doubt the government was supportive

of The Mail, The Sun and other right-wing papers lambasting the fire-fighters.

Yet less than a week later those same papers venomously hounded Cherie Blair for her misguided alliance with an ex-con man. Feeling bruised by the inaccurate briefings from Downing Street over the affair, correspondents were heard to tell the prime minister's official spokesman: 'How can we believe anything you say?'

In the Christmas party game of mixed metaphors, those who live by the sword can be hoist by their own petard.

Carol Grant

Partner, Grant Riches communication consultants

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