OFF SPIN: Why Malcolm Tucker must die

As beautiful illicit guilty pleasures go watching BBC2’s The Thick Of It is not exactly an out-of-control gambling habit.

A satirical fly-on-the-wall Yes Minister for the 21st Century Civil Servants and politicians scheme, plot and manipulate obsessed by the whims of public opinion.

Chief amongst them is the figure of Malcolm Tucker. Like ‘Iago with a blackberry’  as The Spectator calls him in the programme itself, he is the government’s director of communications whose Machiavellian command of the dark arts of spin is direct drawn from the underworld. Nothing is too low.

“Congratulations on your first confirmed kill,” he chillingly writes on a card to a junior who ill in hospital goes along with his plot to unseat the Leader of the Opposition. Out of the box the card comes from drifts a helium baloon with a picture of the deposed Leader sellotaped to it. A perfect blend of malice and slapstick.

Watching the programme is also a secret vice of comms people to talk of the programme illicitly in hushed tones.

A few years ago the subject of The Thick Of It came up in a conversation I had with someone who had worked at the heart of government in the Civil Service. “On a good day it was nothing like it,” the individual said. “On a bad day it was actually a toned down documentary.”

Yet, part of me thinks people will look back in years to come and find that Malcolm Tucker is a bygone relic. Obsessed with newspaper headlines and able to cajole the Priesthood of journalists with bribes and threats.

Or maybe the government comms people of the future will be just as frenetic and just as twitchy about public opinion. It’s just that it’ll be the bloggers and the digital journalists they’ll be obsessed about.

The fourth series ended with Tucker disgraced, chased by a press pack from a police station after handing himself in to be arrested after he perjured himself at a public enquiry.

And Malcolm Tucker to use a very Malcom Tucker word is ‘is damaging’.

Why damaging?

Because he forms people’s warped idea of what a public sector comms person looks like. Which is why he needs to be brought down from grace. It’s why he needs to die. Under a bus. Outside Parliament. With a single bunch of flowers from his ma in Scotland. Leaving a stack of cracking YouTube clips as his legacy.

Comms, like journalism, is a broad church and across it finds all sorts of characters and practices. Yet there is nothing I find in what he does remotely similar to what I do working in an environment that encourages open access to social media and open data. Central government people may disagree.

But as Alastair Campbell, the man who did most to create the late 20th century idea of a spin doctor, said recently the landscape has changed: “You can’t dominate the news agenda now. The agenda is more chaotic but that’s a good thing.”


11 Comments on “OFF SPIN: Why Malcolm Tucker must die”

  1. Whatever view you take, you can’t deny that the thick if it was cracking comedy.

    I’m off for a Twix !

  2. Great post Dan. Love your Iago with a BlackBerry comparison. Spot on.

    Malcolm Tucker, Siobhan Sharpe (of Twenty Twelve) and Terri Coverley are three examples of fictional people working in Comms/PR who are doing our reputation no favours. As a comms professional, I am able to spot the tongue clearly planted in the cheek, wince at the over-familiar phrases and enjoy the scripts for what they are meant to be – entertainment.

    But the message they send is not one that we would choose if we were to script what a ‘good’ and effective comms pro looks like. I’d be fascinated to know what traits people think that character should have. I wonder if it wouldn’t be controversial enough to make good TV?

    I created a meme in February this year to describe what I do for a living for internal/corporate comms pros, as one didn’t exist. (You can view it here: http://www.rachmiller.com/?p=1818) and realised in doing so that it’s the Ab Fab and Campbell comparisons that most people equate PR and Comms to. Definitely time for a fresh approach and a new role model. Any volunteers?

  3. Dan Slee says:

    Good stuff, Rachel. It’s fascinating to see what cliches are attached to PR and communications people and how far they are from the truth. When I was a journalist I used to get hot under the collar about how journalists were shown. Even the local rag’s hack on Eastenders had the reprehensible ethics of a toad and would doorstep with an accompanying papparazzo for the most trivial story. It happens. I’m positive. It just never happened during my career in my corner of the journalism allotment.

  4. [...] OFF SPIN: Why Malcolm Tucker must die by Dan Slee [...]

  5. [...] next two blogs look at the perception of professional reputation, in OFF SPIN: Why Malcolm Tucker must die by Dan Slee, Dan suggests that The Thick of It character Malcolm Tucker is doing no favours to the [...]

  6. But Malcolm Tucker had a heart of gold really. It was clear in the penultimate series that he would not tolerate “civilians” being harmed. I think he was a sweetie underneath the bitter half-smile that never reached his eyes.
    If you think Malcolm Tucker was bad for PR, look at how some other professions have been portrayed (could be a whole series of posts!). And at least Edina was (apparently) mysteriously and spectacularly successful in her work :-)

    • Dan Slee says:

      Good point. One of my favourite scenes was one of the specials. A cleaner was harangueing him about the poor behaviour of his colleagues and how the News of the World should be told. He was made to listen in silence by this angry cleaner. The only scene I can recall where its Malcolm who is cowed.

      • I think Malcolm is a complex character, and that it would be good to get him interviewed by a psychologist. I imagine him to listen to classical music and read novels (Jane Austen, even) & philosophy in his spare time.

      • Dan Slee says:

        Jane F***ING Austen??

      • :-) Malcolm’s somewhat excoriating observations on people, often wrapped up as an insult, seem positively inspired by much reading and a deep understanding of Jane Austen’s descriptions of a society that was at a similar power level to today’s politicians and their entourages.


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