Julia Hobsbawm

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Julia Hobsbawm is a public relations operative with close New Labour Links. She is a regular defender of the PR industry and has been appointed a Visiting Professor of Public Relations at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts (formerly the London College of Printing), where Dennis Stevenson is the Chancellor.

She was a partner in Hobsbawm Macaulay Communications with Sarah Macaulay, now Sarah Brown, the wife of UK prime minister Gordon Brown. The firm went into receivership in 2004. Hobsbawm's next venture was a new grouping called Editorial Intelligence.

Contents

Background and early career

Perhaps the PR firm with the widest reputation for what it calls 'integrity PR' is Hobsbawm Macaulay Communications, the firm started by Julia Hobsbawm and Sarah Macaulay, who first met at school but became business partners through working for the Labour Party in the early 1990s. Macaulay, now known as Sarah Brown, is better known as the wife of Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister and former Chancellor of the Exchequer. Hobsbawm has been a long time fundraiser for New Labour, and a tireless defender of the PR industry.

Hobsbawm got an early job with Labour after working in book PR and then at satellite broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting (BSB). 'During my time at BSB,' Hobsbawn recalls, 'I had met Ken Follett, and we had struck up a friendship and talked about our enthusiasm for the Labour Party. He was about to start up the 1000 Club – for people who gave £1,000 or more a year to Labour, which I later ran – and knew they were looking for a fund-raising consultant at Walworth Road. I was offered the job on a freelance basis.' From there, according to Hobsbawm: ' I was aware of what the Democratic Party was doing with their fund-raising, and I wanted to try and import some of their techniques, like their gala dinners.' [1]

The first gala dinner was held in June 1991 in London's Piccadilly. The planning began in February. Hobsbawm, 'held training sessions for the catering staff to make sure everything would be all right on the night.' [2]

Kinnock, [then leader of the party] acknowledged: 'This event has not been greeted in some sections of the movement with the enthusiasm it might have been. It is not a new-fangled idea. We are talking about raising money.' But the array of show business personalities, image makers, businessmen, intellectuals and politicians gathered around 20 circular tables discounted the £500 a head price tag, though one college professor was scolded by his wife that they could have had a family holiday for the same money. Nor did they think they were breaking with socialist traditions. 'To quote Gunter Grass, ‘nothing is too good for socialists’,' said David Puttnam, the film producer. [3]

Puttnam's view was apparently not shared by most of the party's left, 'who would have choked on the cost of the meal ticket before they had even tasted the starter of fresh salmon with lemon, cucumber, capsicums and herbs served with a lemon and chive cream. The late Eric Heffer tore up his invitation and claimed it was a slap in the face to those struggling to make ends meet. 'I find it nauseating in the extreme,' he said. Dennis Skinner, who had voted against the dinner at Labour's National Executive (and what an NEC meeting that must have been), spent the evening lecturing to a party meeting in Lincolnshire on the folly of 'an elitist dinner'. He even took his own sandwiches. ‘I don't go to junkets.’ [4]

The fund raising functioned as more than a bank balance raising event. Among the celebrities and the politicians, were the unmistakable signs that the Labour Party (pre-New Labour) was courting big business. And the big business representatives and their spin doctors and lobbyists were certainly present. 'Brian Basham, a public relations consultant for such Tory captains of industry as Lord Hanson, Lord King of British Airways, and Lord Young of Cable and Wireless, found himself crossing party lines… Nazmu Virani, chairman of Control Securities and owner of the Belhaven Brewery, sat with Bryan Gould. Swraj Paul, chairman of Caparo Industries, joined Jack Cunningham at his table. B&Q, hoping for better Sunday trading, had booked a table for ten.' [5]

Hobsbawm and her prospective partner worked together on the fundraising dinners. Macaulay's company Spirit handled design work for Labour's gala dinners, which were launched by the then Julia Hobsbawm Associates. [6]

The 1000 club dinners grew in significance as the Labour Party moved towards business, with the so called 'prawn cocktail offensive' from 1991 onwards and especially in the years after Blair was elected leader in 1994. By 1996 the 450 tickets sold out a month before the event and Hobsbawm Macaulay Communications (HMC) refused to divulge the guest list: 'this is a private function. People who have bought tickets have asked not to have their names disclosed', said an HMC staffer. [7]

HMC was formed in 1993 and became the doyen of New Labour networking. Most of their clients were New Labour-friendly and they provided the lubrication for much of the networking between New Labour and big business in the years between then and the victory night celebrations at Royal Festival Hall in 1997 at which Hobsbawm was – naturally – present. [8]

New Labour links

Hobsbawm cites the description of her as the 'networker's networker' on her own website. [9] Her links with the New Labour project are deep.

She is an alumni of the Atlanticist British American Project and close to the Labour Industry Forum, about which she notes:

Robin [Cook] was particularly loyal to a mutual friend of ours, the late Gerald Frankel, a businessman who founded the influential Labour Industry Forum. When Gerald lost a power struggle with ministers and advisers who wanted to take it over (he resisted strongly but failing health forced him eventually), Robin continued to invite him to smart dinners during his time as foreign secretary. Gerald always said that Robin was a cut above the rest. [10]

HMC networking

John Kampfner records the role of HMC in the 'launching' of Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire, socialite and future Mayor of New York: [11]

taking a characteristically pragmatic approach, Bloomberg hired a modish public-relations outfit to set up his own private party network. Julia Hobsbawm's HMC offered a sort of bespoke introduction service to the city's elite, organizing a series of discreet, informal dinners with social tastemakers like newspaper baron Conrad Black (now Lord Black of Crossharbour to you) and his wife, the conservative commentator [[Barbara Amiel], through to the influential art dealer Jay Jopling.
"Mike wanted to be launched, and it was our job to introduce him, judiciously, to everyone who mattered," says one who works with Hobsbawm, whom the industry describes as having "one of the most envied little black books" in London. "He was unknown one minute -- and very hot the next."
The U.K. publication of Bloomberg's memoir proved the ideal social battering ram. With HMC vetting the guest lists for his launch party, Bloomberg invited the ubiquitous thriller writer Ken Follett, along with some Fleet Street editors Hobsbawm, daughter of the left-wing historian Eric Hobsbawm, plumped for. Ever the clever publicist, Hobsbawm then devised a longer-term strategy of raising the billionaire's profile by suggesting some tactical sponsorships of London's best-loved arts institutions.
One of her most successful dinners came that fall. With London in a state of shock shortly after the death of Princess Diana — the organizations that she had supported felt particularly bereft — an American mogul on the make seemed like the ideal savior. Julia Peyton-Jones, director of the Serpentine Gallery, an avant-garde art dealer located in the glorious middle of Hyde Park, was intrigued to receive an invitation to a Bloomberg soiree at Sir Terence Conran's Bluebird restaurant. Curiosity turned into delight when she found herself seated next to the host.
"I found him absolutely hilarious and extremely endearing," Peyton-Jones says. "He was completely irreverent and talked about the arts in a very straightforward way."
Flattered by his interest, Peyton-Jones did a most un-English thing: She screwed up her courage and asked him for money directly. The check Bloomberg wrote for £250,000 got him a seat on the Serpentine's board alongside one of the city's social lions, Lord Jacob Rothschild. "He missed very few meetings," says Peyton-Jones. "His dedication was remarkable."

In August 2005 she noted that her services were being retained by design consultancy Pentagram:

Recently I've been lining up independent-minded people to take part in a debate hosted by the design consultancy Pentagram. Called "Will design ever be better understood?", it will take place at the London Design Festival in September. I've had a nice time twiddling my pencil, thinking up cool and clever people to take part. The chair will be Peter York (who is quite possibly the coolest person in the universe), and he will be joined on the panel by Julia Peyton-Jones, curator of the Serpentine Gallery; Gwyn Miles, who runs major architectural projects for the V&A; and the designer Daniel Weil, who, like all Pentagram partners, has an industrial-sized creative brain. [12]

Labour fundraiser... helping with enquiries

Hobsbawm has noticed something about the mainstream press: "The notion that journalism is 'at the vanguard of truth seeking, truth telling', that it is 'further up the moral food chain than most other forms of communication,'(emphasis added) that 'journalism is somehow seriously frank and free," is a delusion." [13]

The 1000 Club was Hobsbawm's organisation for those with an annual £1,000 or so to give to Tony Blair, which has existed since the early 1990s. This was described as a way to 'make middle-class participants feel like big shots'.

"The covering letter accompanying the club's promotional literature in March 1996 – laden with such Blair clichés as "young country" and "new economy" — promised invitations to special summer and Christmas receptions, an annual conference dinner, campaign briefings and chances to meet members of the Shadow Cabinet. The reply-paid envelope was addressed to Hobsbawm Macaulay Communications in Soho's Poland Street. Within five years, the event had grown considerably in stature. The 1996 dinner saw 450 tickets sold out a month before it was held in July. Hobsbawm Macaulay refused to release the guest list. "This is a private function", an employee explained. "People who have bought tickets have asked not to have their names disclosed." Names that did slip out included Bruce Shepherd, managing director of Shepherd Offshore; Caparo's Swraj Paul; Ulster Unionist David Montgomery, chief executive of the Mirror Group; and Hanson director Peter Harper, the company's linkman to Labour." [14]

Much of her work involved persuading people with money to part with it to meet Labour politicians. Bruce Anderson wrote in the right wing Spectator:

“But the prize for hypocrisy goes to the Labour politicians who have condemned Prince Edward's wife for exploiting her royal connections, while averting their gaze from the Chancellor's wife, Sarah Macaulay. Over the past few years she and Julia Hobsbawm have built up a successful public-relations firm. Early on, they had significant help, from Geoffrey Robinson, who was then buying his way into Gordon Brown's favour and Tony Blair's government. He lavished some 100,000 on fees to Hobsbawm Macaulay, partly in payment for organising his hospitality: once again, the rich met the famous.” [15]

Her part in the Blunkett/Fortier affair

Hobsbawm seemed uncomfortable in the press interviews which followed her trumpeting of how EI was devoted to the 'truth' particularly around her role helping her friend Kimberly Quinn:

""I didn't lobby for Kimberly Quinn to the papers. What I did very briefly was respond as her friend who also was in PR, and I kept to my principle that if you're in PR and a journalist calls you, you must take the call." Soon, she realised that, in such cases, "unless you have a formal role, you shouldn't take the call." So that is all she did? Respond to calls from journalists? This is not the version of events assumed around Fleet Street. If you recall the timetable last year, after the first flurry of activity in August, the story went quiet and Blunkett's job looked safe. Then on November 28, the Sunday Telegraph broke an exclusive: "Blunkett's ex-lover accusing him of fast-tracking visa." Someone, presumably from the Quinn camp, had given the story legs again. With this, the minister was doomed." [16]

Polly Filler Award

Hobsbawm was given Private Eye’s 2005 ‘Polly Filler Award’ for her writing in the New Statesman:

"Luckily, our new male Brazilian au pair had decided not to take his family’s advice to return home after the Stockwell shooting, and came with us to queue and help with the meltdown control brought on by over excitement (kids) and exhaustion (me)."

Hobsbawm has been described by PR Week as ‘a cross between Rosa Luxembourg and Edina from Absolutely Fabulous’. The Luxembourg quip is an obscure put-down of Hobsbawm's father Eric Hobsbawm once thought of as Neil Kinnock’s pet thinker.

PR industry role

The other significant role played by Hobsbawm has been as defender of the PR industry. She has pursued this in regular columns in the press and magazines such as The Observer, The Guardian, The Independent, Prospect and New Statesman, the latter three of which she has also represented as clients. In defence of her claims to 'integrity', Hobsbawm has claimed that her own brand of PR is truthful: 'I run a PR agency and I advise students about getting a career in PR and I have never lied', she claims. [17]

But in her defence of the industry as a whole she strays from justifying her own practice to generalise about the whole industry and its history. The 'history of PR is largely... unknown' says Hobsbawm, 'its origins came directly out of journalism, out of the "muck-raking" traditions of the late 19th century' as if it was only a defensive response to an unwarranted attack on the corporation from journalism. But the emergence of PR was a result of the massive power of the corporations and the consequent pressure for democratic reform. [18] It was to resist this that the PR industry emerged. Hobsbawm appears to know a little about PR history as she often cites Edward Bernays as the 'founder' of modern PR. He 'made his name promoting Lucky Strike cigarettes in the 1920s' she notes, 'by organising smoking demonstrations by debutantes on street corners. It was aimed at getting more women to smoke'. [19] This scarcely sounds ethical, but elsewhere in her first book Hobsbawm goes further and describes Bernays as the 'late great founder of modern public relations'. [20] Favourably citing Bernays, one of the most successful practitioners of the "engineering of consent", hardly inspires confidence in the integrity of HMC.

'The majority of the PR trade' Hobsbawm writes, 'believes in the taxi-rank school of appointment, namely that everyone has the right to representation, regardless of the merit of their case'. 'I disagree with this policy', she notes, 'but it doesn't mean that unethical systems of information automatically follow suit'. [21] The rest of the industry uses tactics which are 'usually benign' and its function is - quoting Bernays – to ' tell the truth persuasively.' [22] These tactics include copy approval, in which, PR agents demand the right to review interview transcripts and rewrite copy. As far as Hobsbawm is concerned this is a technique which 'was originally intended to avoid simple inaccuracy, rather than control copy'.[23] PR is only a 'distant cousin' of spin - 'an art applied to science, social science, in which public interest rather than any financial motivation is the primary consideration'.[24] 'What tosh' notes journalist Peter Hillmore. 'When she is not being Tony Blair's favourite PR woman, Ms Hobsbawm is busy doing PR for Tatler and Vanity Fair magazines… and I refuse to believe she thinks there is some grand public interest element in publicising glossy magazines'. [25]

It could be argued that what Hobsbawm says about PR is hardly an accurate picture. PR does have something to do with manipulation and deceit, though Hobsbawm dismisses this as a "completely loony" account of PR. [26] Nevertheless, it is perhaps also worth looking at what she doesn't say about PR. In her columns which seem self consciously to be PR for PR, she neglects to mention the kinds of PR tactics which are commonplace today. Her list of 'personal qualities' for a PR job includes 'confidence and self belief', 'capacity to handle... rejection', 'persuasiveness', 'presentational skills' and 'creative thought'. [27] Strangely, it does not include the ability to present sectional interests as if they were legitimate and universal. Nor does it include the ability to tell the truth. The guide to jargon also seems curiously reluctant to mention common PR techniques such as the creation of 'front groups' or the use of 'third party endorsements'. [28] Presumably this is because to tell the truth persuasively about PR you have to avoid giving an accurate picture.

Affiliations

Contact, References and Resources

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Notes

  1. Julia Hobsbawm, 'I QUIT MY DEGREE FOR A SMALL JOB IN PUBLISHING ... BUT ONE DAY I OVERHEARD THE PUBLISHER'S WIFE TRYING TO INTEREST A JOURNALIST IN A BOOK SHE REALLY BELIEVED IN ... AND I KNEW WHAT I WANTED', The Independent, 3 March, 1997.
  2. Maurice Chittenden, 'It's our party' The Sunday Times, 9 June, 1991.
  3. Maurice Chittenden, 'It's our party' The Sunday Times, 9 June, 1991.
  4. Maurice Chittenden, 'It's our party' The Sunday Times, 9 June, 1991.
  5. Maurice Chittenden, 'It's our party' The Sunday Times, 9 June, 1991.
  6. Kate Nicholas, 'Macaulay steps down from agency MD role', PR Week, 19 October, 2001, p. 1.
  7. cited in David Osler, Labour Party Plc: New Labour as a Party of Business, Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2002, p. 70.
  8. Henry Porter, 'Election '97: 'Now it starts', and courtiers crowd into the New Camelot', The Independent, 4 May, 1997, p. 16.
  9. Julia Hobsbawn website
  10. Julia Hobsbawm, 'Diary - Julia Hobsbawm', New Statesman, 15 August, 2005.
  11. John Kampfner, 'Bloomberg Does Britain', New York Magazine, 8 April, 2002.
  12. Julia Hobsbawm, 'Diary - Julia Hobsbawm', New Statesman, 15 August, 2005.
  13. Nick Leader, 'PR BOSS SAYS TIDE IS TURNING AGAINST "MASSIVELY UNREGULATED" JOURNALISM', AntiSpin.com, no date retrieved from the Internet Archive of 27 April, 2004. (Accessed 21 October, 2008)
  14. David Osler, 'Taking It On Trust', What Next? No.25., 2002.
  15. Bruce Anderson, 'A tale of two PR girls', The Spectator, 14 April, 2001.
  16. Vincent Graff, 'How to handle the truth: Interview with Julia Hobsbawn', The Guardian, 7 November, 2005.
  17. Rebecca Dowman, 'Clifford claims triumph despite industry critics', PR Week, 17 January, 1997.
  18. D. Miller and W. Dinan, A Century of Spin, London: Pluto, 2008
  19. Julia Hobsbawm, 'Rough sea of publicity; Shell took a battering in the North Sea. But can big business ever compete with guerrilla PR?' The Guardian, 26 June, 1995, p. 10.
  20. Robert Gray and Julia Hobsbawm, Cosmopolitan Guide to working in PR and advertising, London: Penguin, 1996.
  21. Julia Hobsbawm 'Face up to who your real sources are', The Guardian, 13 November, 2000. Guardian Media Pages, p. 8
  22. Julia Hobsbawm, 'WHY PR NEEDS GOOD PUBLICITY' Yorkshire Post, 26 December, 2001. Julia Hobsbawm, 'PRS HAVE NOTHING TO HIDE. WHAT ABOUT JOURNALISTS?', The Independent, 27 November, 2001, p. 8.
  23. Julia Hobsbawm, 'PRS HAVE NOTHING TO HIDE. WHAT ABOUT JOURNALISTS?', The Independent, 27 November, 2001, p. 8.
  24. Cited in Peter Hillmore, 'MAX CLIFFORD IS THE ONLY PR WHO DOESN'T STAND FOR POMPOUS RHETORIC', The Observer, 14 July, 1996, The Observer Review Page, 14 July, 1996, p. 13.
  25. Peter Hillmore, 'MAX CLIFFORD IS THE ONLY PR WHO DOESN'T STAND FOR POMPOUS RHETORIC' The Observer, 14 July, 1996, The Observer Review Page, p. 13.
  26. Rebecca Dowman, 'Clifford claims triumph despite industry critics', PR Week, 17 January, 1997.
  27. Gray and Hobsbawm, p. 133.
  28. Ibid, p. 144.
  29. 'Board of Trustees', web.archive.org/InKind Direct website, accessed 22 April, 2009.
  30. 'About the Programme', Cultures of Consumption website, accessed 22 April, 2009.
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