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The Lie, The Millionaire And The Magners

The Lie, The Millionaire And The Magners

29 Aug 2019

“Is this a joke?” He asked.

“Umm, no sir it's not,” I replied. Even though it definitely, definitely was. Ultimately it wasn't a funny one to start with – then it grew, and grew, and grew. It grew into a national press controversy.

The setting

On a Sunday afternoon, let's say 10 years ago. I was at home with a pint of Magners in one hand and a mobile phone in the other.
Magners is a good Sunday afternoon drink. We called it the drink you drink when you don't want to drink. For me, Magners wasn't just a Sunday drink I drank when I didn't want to drink, it was my nemesis drink.

Why the longwinded explanation re Magners? Because I'd had only one, not five or six. I was one in, tiddly, and thought it a cracking idea to mess with my celebrity, millionaire boss. For the sake of ease let's call him Damien.

The target

To explain, I wasn't doing this to be playful or fun. No sir. This wasn't a drink-fuelled prank phonecall session starring me and the lads. Nope, I was alone and acting out of spite.

What had he done to deserve my watery wrath? Well, as part of an organisational restructuring he'd made some of the factory floor staff redundant, and the blast hit a few of my friends.

Fast forward a few years and today I own a business. I sympathise massively with the decision he had to make. But I was a little younger and a little wilder … I took it upon myself to fight the fat cat on behalf of the workers in some utterly misplaced sense of, I dunno, Marxism or something.
So with the nerve and brass ones of a Roman gladiator, I hid behind a WITHHELD number and tried my hardest not to cry.

The lie

Damien's net worth was in the hundreds of millions. He was a significant and regular media presence. Ironically, I worked for him in PR.
Like most others in his position, Damien was obsessed with his media profile. I was a liaison between his office and one of the country's premier PR and reputation management firms. They were on retainer.

Like any good public figure, he didn't ever want to be caught doing something naughty. He certainly didn't want to damage an image that was carefully curated over two decades. One of our prominent PR “selling points” was Damien's flawless records in business – several years of only growth. He created jobs and opportunities. He was seemingly immune to failure.

It should be said that Damien had some friendly media: one media group in particular used him a lot. He was a regular talking head in their print and on their TV. The rival media group was less-friendly media: they were quite keen to see him taken down a peg or two.

Anyway, to the lie

I was sitting on stories about Damien's bad behaviour. He wasn't a saint – but who is? I'm writing a story about doing something incredibly unsaintly so there's no moral high ground to be had here.

But did I use my knowledge as ammunition? Did I throw a kiss-and-tell story to the unfriendly media group? Alas, no. That would have been a simpler, better idea but unfortunately for everyone, that's not how it went down.

See, I was a special kind of petty twit. I didn't want to UTTERLY do him in, I just wanted to annoy him a bit. I wanted him to feel it for, like, a day. I didn't have the spine or desire to go nuclear on him so nothing too mean or irreversible.

I wanted to give him a 24 hour virus, not inject him with the plague.

Also, if I went too far, I'd end up having to deal with the PR fallout. My spillage would land on my desk … and I wasn't about creating more work for myself, was I?

Sorry, the lie

Pint of Magners in leftie, mobile phone (Nokia N95) in rightie, I hushed T4 Sunday, withheld my number and dialled.
Brrrrrrr. Brrrrrr. Brrrrr. It took ages. I nearly hit the red button so none of this would have happened. But at the last moment he picked up. He was probably enjoying a well earned Sunday with the family. And back then wasn't like it is now – people still answered withheld numbers.

“Hello?” He said.
Deep breath.

In my Magnersy little peabrain, I'd gone over this a couple of times, like any good PR, I knew the lines. In my best mockney accent (much different from my own) I kicked off a chain of events with more ramifications than anyone bargained for. This is what a stupid idea sounds like:
“Hi Damien, I just want to let you know that I'm an undercover reporter for *publication*. I've been working in your *city* warehouse for three months and I have some revealing footage and information. Someone from *publication* will be in touch with your office.”

Silence. Silence. Silence. We shared a long, awkward, bristling pause, the weirdest pause anywhere in the world at that moment.

“Is this a joke?” He asked. His voice cracked a little.
“Umm, no sir it's not,” I replied. Even though it definitely, definitely was.

Success?

He said nothing for three seconds, which was as much silence as my sphincter could bear. I can't remember if he hung up or I did but that was it. I giggled, I cried, I laughed.

Magners time – and back to my tragic Sunday I went. T4 was especially good that day, I think Mystique were on.
To explain the why of the lie: I'd heard through the grapevine of some shenanigans going on in that warehouse. Everyone had, including the head honcho.

Anyway, the buzz dissipated. And twenty minutes later, 20-Samantha-Mumba minutes later, I opened the next Magners. Then the next and so it went. I soon fell asleep.

Back to work

The next day was Monday and I was hungover.
I staggered into a hum and a buzz in the place. I worked next to senior management and they were actually doing stuff. It was odd. Fairly obviously it was because of my phone call.

Purely having a hostile undercover journo in there for three months was enough to crank the fear-o-meter up to max. They were trying to figure out who it was and what records were kept. They feared the unknown: what had he seen? What had he recorded? As in many workplaces, of course there would be some bad behaviour - it was quite a laddy culture in our warehouse, which was 100-strong.
No one can ever know everything that goes on …

But the panic overload was that Damien's business troubles – and our redundancies – hadn't hit the press. His PR firm (and me) were doing a decent job keeping a lid on it: it's amazing how simply staggering your job cuts and coming up with several euphemisms for “redundancy” can make the whole thing look and smell entirely different.

If there really was a hostile journo in the mix, he would have caught a scoop or two. And Damien's rep would have taken a pounding.

I'm not sure where they got to in trying to figure out who the culprit might have been, but several agency workers and contractors were constantly milling about, a rat could have easily lived there for a few months, undetected and undocumented.

Am I done for? Is he done for?

“Bartholomew,” said someone, addressing me. That's not my real name, I just like it. “Can you come in here a second?”

I was done for. They'd figured it out – figured me out. Maybe I'm terrible at impressions. Maybe I didn't withhold my number. I must have given myself away somehow. I was done for.

The walk from my desk to a small conference room took ages and my heart was pounding. I almost forgot the fact I was hungover and had been sick several times that morning.

There were five suits in there. Two from the PR company and three directors. It was 50/50 whether or not I was done for. But when one of the directors started talking, I quickly realised I was not.

She wasn't talking to me or at me, she was talking near me. She was talking to the room:

“We do believe that there has in fact been a snoop in the warehouse.”
There hasn't but cool – so far so good.
“John (a PR dude) has spoken with the newspaper we suspect are behind it and they're neither confirming nor denying ...”
Well that's interesting.
“So we have decided to get in front and control the story (this is horrible PR speak) and come clean ...”
What?
“... so we'll stagger our announcements, first the redundancies, then the drug-dealing and if we have to, the affair. We'll make a judgement call … ”
WHAT? 

I sucked in breath and began to see stars. I only half heard the next portion of what she said ...

Oh my good heavens

What had I done? We'd be spinning stories about drug-dealing, extra-marital affairs and redundancies? All this because I can't handle a Magners?
I couldn't speak up. I should have spoken up, but I couldn't. I'd be done for. My name would be mud, and rightly so. What a weirdo, they'd say. I'd have to leave the country. It's a small country after all.

This was the calm before the storm. The moment between the telling of the lie and when it got utterly, like a runaway train, out of control. I didn't speak up then and I still haven't to this day.
What next?

The story trickled out later that week: redundancy. The story went into one of our friendly newspapers and it was very well managed. We presented the bossman as a tough guy: taking the bull by the horns to restructure his entire firm to safeguard many more jobs in these “tough financial times”. Of course it was unfortunate that a couple of dozen people had been let go but …

Sure, there was a backlash in some quarters but it was mostly hushed. A rival paper ran interviews with a few “disgruntled former employees” who talked about “toxic work cultures” and unpaid wages. These interviews were key in triggering the next controlled story from our side: the drug dealing.

The PR masters figured that if hostile papers were talking with some “disgruntled former employees”, it'd only be a matter of time before they got to others; those prepared to spill sexier secrets. We would fire first on the drugs front.

Again, from a PR point of view, it was quite well-done. We positioned another story, again in our friendly press, about how, unfortunately, several of the redundancy decisions were made easier because of “anti-social behaviour” in the workplace. No one said drug-dealing and we managed to bury it on page 1899.

By this time, my lie was taking up a lot of my time – and other peoples.

The affair?

A fortnight went by. We had managed the redundancies and the “anti-social behaviour”, the kicking Damien got was squashed and limited. The PR company was doing a great job and I was simultaneously furthering, aiding and abetting my own lie. It was hellish.

But still there were people speaking out against him and the organisation.

My undercover reporter lie was now a distant memory. No one was worried about footage leaking – if it was going to it would have happened by now. But more and more individuals were coming forward to sling mud.

The next months, probably six months, were spent steering and refining a new media profile. Damien lost some weight and almost rebranded, becoming a prominent media advocate for the scourge of workplace stress, losing his flawless I've-never-made-anyone-redundant schtick. In other words, we had to present him as human again before we restored the flawlessness. 

And in that spirit, the one very human error in the trio of stories was the affair. The judgement call to keep the affair under wraps “for now” was a good call. Nothing came out and no-one spoke up.

For now?

Thankfully, “for now”, is a decade and counting. The world has moved on.

So no-one ever knew it was me. I don't suspect they even suspected. I never let on to my newly-redundant friends either that I was their Marxist hero… so the point of the exercise was totally lost.

This lazy PR person told a lie, and then spent six months working overtime to limit its impact.

Me today? Not telling lies. Magners? Haven't touched it in a long time.

Damien today? More successful than ever and blissfully married. The affair could still damage him. His profile is bigger now than then and the press would love to land one on the teflon man.

This lie, honestly. Not only is it one that got out of hand, it still hangs like the Sword of Damocles over my head.
If the affair is revealed tomorrow … that's kind of on me, I started the chain reaction with a Magners in my left hand and an old Nokia in my right. Idiot.  

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