From the desk of Frank Kane: Dictators and carnivals

Focus: One man's murderous dictator was another's misunderstood statesman, writes Frank Kane.
A dancer in costume at the Notting Hill Carnival in London. AFP
A dancer in costume at the Notting Hill Carnival in London. AFP

I met up with an old pal in Dubai recently, a former journalist colleague who rose high in the profession in the UK, then left newspapers to try his hand at public relations, setting up his own firm: swapping hackery for flackery, you might say.

His specialism as a journo was politics, and he had cracked some pretty big scoops in his time, and damaged some big reputations.

Senior political journalists in the UK get plenty of access to the corridors of power, and he decided to leverage up his contacts book in PR, but in a specialist field: the defence of people that some considered indefensible.

"I'd knocked them down over the years, so thought I had the skills to help build them up again," he said over a beverage in Barsha.

I cannot tell you who his clients are specifically, because that would identify him, and he is involved in a pretty sensitive case in the Middle East at the moment, but you might imagine the kind: Asian politicians who'd fallen out of favour in their own country and were seeking to rebuild their reputations from abroad; former Soviet states that wanted a better image in the court of world opinion.

Compared with some of them, his new Middle East client represents a slightly lesser challenge, but a challenge nonetheless, especially in western liberal circles.

We chatted for a while about the morality of the reputational PR business. Was there anyone he wouldn't take on? "Well, I wouldn't touch Qaddafi. Dictators and murderers are where I'd draw the line personally," he said.

I thought this was rather simplistic. After all, plenty of dictators paid good money in the past to have their world image finessed, and would continue to do so. Reputational PR is a bit like the legal profession in this instance, I argued. It has the duty, even the moral obligation, to provide a service of advocacy for anybody who can pay the fees. "You're just like taxi cabs. If you can pay the fare, you've got the ride," I said.

We agreed in the end that one man's murderous dictator was another's misunderstood statesman, and left it at that.

But I'll be interested to see how he goes with the new Middle East client. It'll be quite a test case.

---

Twenty-four hours after this is published, I'll be in the UK for a break with my family there. I seriously wonder what I'll find this time.

Those gruesome pictures of riot-torn Britain that hit the world's TV screens a couple of weeks back have now gone, morphing into images of stern retribution on the part of the authorities and contrition by (some of) the looters.

I'll have a front-row seat to gauge the temperature of post-riot Britain. My mother, now in her nineties, lives right on the route of the Notting Hill Carnival, billed as "Europe's street party", this year as ever, and I'll be staying with her for the duration.

I've had many happy times at the carnival, but also witnessed some pretty disturbing scenes of violence and damage. In the current climate, with fears that such a large public gathering might be used by troublemakers to (literally) reignite the fires that have been doused over the past couple of weeks, there was some thought given to cancelling the event.

But it's big business these days too, and with the backing of most of the UK's political establishment, the carnival is going ahead. There was a general feeling that to cancel it would be a costly admission of defeat in the face of violence, and a serious knock to Britain's image in the world.

It's a gamble, but I hope they're right. I'll report back from the joyous scenes, or from the war-torn streets, whichever is the more appropriate.

---

The other reason for going to the UK is to celebrate my 60th birthday in the bosom of my family. It feels strange being 60, and I've approached this one with more trepidation than any before.

But a couple of comments have cheered me recently. "Don't worry, 60 is the new 48," was an enigmatic one from a Dubai friend.

The other, from my teenage daughter, was even better: "OK, dad, so you may be 60 - but that's 16 in Celsius."

fkane@thenational.ae

Published: August 24, 2011 04:00 AM

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