Suffering at hands of spin doctors

Cynics will tell you that there is often a big difference between what politicians promise and what they subsequently deliver. UK construction giant Balfour Beatty may be forgiven for sharing this view after a brush with politics that initially offered the firm a splendid PR opportunity – but was then followed by the irritation of unwanted media scrutiny. 

Queen Elizabeth hospital:
hosted political drama

On Monday 12 April, British Prime Minister and Labour leader Gordon Brown announced the launch of his party’s manifesto for the 6 May general election against the backdrop of the spanking new Queen Elizabeth “super-hospital” in Birmingham (subliminal message = vote for us and this is what you get). Also highly visible in extensive television coverage of the event was a large board adjacent to the hospital bearing the name “Balfour Beatty” – a proud testament to the firm’s role as developer of the £585 million (€664 million; $903 million) public-private partnership.

So far, so much good publicity. And then some ungrateful observer (identity unknown) tried to spoil the happy vibe by pointing to a rule that political parties are not supposed to launch their manifestos on National Health Service (NHS) premises.  This prompted Gordon Brown to explain that – as the hospital will not open until June – it was still owned by Balfour Beatty rather than the NHS.  

Following speculation as to why Balfour Beatty had agreed to play host, the firm then issued a joint statement with the NHS Trust explaining that, on the day the general election was called, it had agreed to host a media event involving the Conservative party opposition. It said that “in the interests of impartiality” it subsequently agreed to a request by the Labour party to also stage an event.

So was this enough to lay the issue to rest? Not quite. In a blog, Michael Crick, political editor of the BBC’s Newsnight television programme, claimed that Balfour Beatty had failed to answer his question regarding whether the firm had been paid by the Labour party for staging the event. He claimed that, if it hadn’t, then the hosting of the event needed to be registered as a “gift-in-kind” with the Electoral Commission.

With the ramifications rumbling on, Balfour Beatty may have the nasty suspicion that the message it hoped to get across somehow got lost somewhere. That’s politics for you.