Monday, 12 January 2009

You're being framed

First published on Green Bristol Blog Sunday, 14 December 2008

In the politics and PR fields there is a technique known as 'framing', which seeks to influence public opinion by describing issues in a manner that predisposes the public towards a particular opinion. In the field of Public Consultation it might take the form of choosing a set of questions to lead towards the desired response on the key question. Each question may be fair in isolation, but with each response the subject becomes more disposed towards the desired response on the subsequent questions. Here's an amateurish example that I've just made up.
Question 1. Should punishment fit the crime?

Question 2. Should punishment act as a clear deterrent to others?

Question 3. Should the death penalty be an option in the worst cases of serial murder?
Many might answer 'yes' to questions 1 and 2 (it's hard to say 'no') but in so doing they would find it much more difficult to say 'no' to question 3 than if asked that question in isolation. The results of such a public consultation on the reintroduction of the death penalty would clearly be of dubious value, especially if the answers to question 3 were presented out of the context of the previous questions.

In fact it's such an obvious perversion of the consultative process that one wouldn't expect any self-respecting organisation to have anything to do with it. But Bristol City Council appear to have no such qualms when it comes trying to justify their illegal decision to sell off a strip of the Bristol & Bath Railway Path to developers Squarepeg to expand on their Chocolate Factory development at Greenbank.

As covered extensively here and on other blogs over recent months, the sale of the Council owned land was agreed in a private meeting between 'Strategic Director of City Development' David Bishop and local entrepreneur, architect and general grandstander George Ferguson, acting for Squarepeg, despite the previous carefully considered decision by council officers not to sell the land.

For months the council insisted that everything was kosher but the release of emails following an FoI request blew that claim out of the water. At long last they have been forced to concede that the decision was improper (but absolutely no apologies of course) and are belatedly trying to legitimise it by hiring a national lobbying and PR company, PPS, to do the dirty. To give you some idea of how outfits like PPS operate, here's a little extract from their website under the 'What We Do' tab:-
  • Grass-Roots Campaigning

    Vocal minorities can be very effective in influencing politicians, but do not represent the wider community. Mobilising the ‘silent’ majority can be extremely difficult. Since 1990, PPS has been securing demonstrable support for planning applications from those that might not normally bother to express their views.

So we bloggers and local activists are to be dismissed as a 'vocal minority' who do not represent the wider community (and just who does then?) while they bamboozle the 'silent majority' (and why have they been so silent despite all the efforts of Squarepeg's pisspoor PR performers Interface?) into supporting the land sale. And how will they bamboozle the silent majority? How about this for a classic piece of framing?
Question 1. Do you believe the area should remain as it is, or receive further investment?

Question 2. Is regeneration important for Easton?

Question 3. Do you believe a balance can be struck between regeneration and green spaces?

Question 4. What would you like to see happen to the two plots of land?
Subtle or what? First imply that the future regeneration of the 'whole area' hangs on the sale of a relatively small pocket of land (the left bank below - about 25 car parking spaces worth according to Squarepeg), then elicit a yes to the question for which there is only one answer and finally challenge the respondent to come up with an alternative development proposal if they don't agree to that put forward! No mention of just leaving the land as it is, which is of course what we are asking for. The detailed questionnaire, while more complicated, uses the same tricks of the trade and some.

But the most serious deceit is that the land sale is conflated with the redevelopment of the Chocolate Factory, yet Squarepeg bought the main Chocolate Factory site in January at a time (before Ferguson nobbled Bishop) when the council were indicating that the Railway Path land would not be available. So at that time Squarepeg were quite happy to hand over £5 million and proceed with the development on the basis of it being confined to the factory site. If the profitability of the development has since gone down the toilet that's just tough and is no justification for going around grabbing neighbouring land to try to compensate.

(I must give credit to bristol greengage for getting in first on this, and for expressing his/her contempt more eloquently and succinctly. All I can hope is that I have added something to the public's awareness of the CONsultation travesties conducted by Bristol City Council in our name.)

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