News Analysis

By The Drum, Administrator

January 26, 2006 | 5 min read

For a second it must have sounded like the ideal PR stunt: why not deprive Prime Minister Tony Blair of his beloved five year-old son just for a short period, to give him a taster of what it must be like to lose access to your children? To the fathers, it must have seemed like the ultimate in revenge for Blair’s ambivalence towards their rights as fathers.

However, ten days on and the pressure group Fathers 4 Justice lies in ruins. The three years of dressing up as superheroes to try and attract media attention to the judicial plight of estranged fathers had ended with founder Matt O’Connor – who ironically sorted out his own access problems before the group was up and running – disbanding.

O’Connor is probably the only one who has come out of the whole sorry mess well. He has a film deal, and is in the process of writing his autobiography. The rest of the group – which was formed in 2002 – has disbanded after Special Branch officers revealed they were investigating a ‘plot’ by fanatics among the group’s membership who were looking to kidnap the Prime Minister’s son. But was it true? Various ‘members’ came out and admitted they had been contacted by police, although not in connection with the kidnap, and one of the alleged suspects even told The Guardian that the ‘plot’ was actually just a conversation in the pub between several members.

The idea that a stunt like this could ever work in favour of Fathers4Justice is impossible, says Gordon Robertson, an account director at PR firm, Media House International. “The phrase that we used when talking about it here was that it was fucking horrendous,” he says. “If you do a stunt, and I don’t think it was a stunt, you have to have a defined plan and you have to have a good idea about what you want to get out of it. All this has done is branded the group a bunch of extremist fruitcakes. For them [Special Branch] to take it to that point, there must have been some substance to the ‘plot’.”

The incident certainly attracted little sympathy from columnists, the harshest critics being female. One was quoted saying ‘now you know why some mothers don’t want their children near these men’.

Lesley Alexander, managing director of Citigate Smarts PR, believes that losing sight of their core aim was the issue. “The issue was that it had been taken over by people with differing views, the fact that a few fanatics took it over meant that the group had to disband,” she says.

Robertson agrees. “If they’re generating that kind of coverage [where columnists are sympathising with the mothers] then that says it all,” he says. “What they did was take their cause a bit too far.” Robertson also questioned what the Fathers4Justice group were actually crusading against. “All you ever really knew about them was that they wore superheroes costumes,” he says. “You never really found out what they wanted people to do. There’s obviously an issue there, as people were prepared to march and go into Parliament and such. But when you do things like that, there has to be a bit of substance to it. If you want to get a politician to the table to discuss the issue, then dressing as Batman and swinging on a crane is maybe not the way.”

“There’s a great focus at the moment on how people go about their causes and things that cost the taxpayer money,” says Alexander. “But they certainly got themselves noticed. However, the kidnap plot stands against everything they believed in.”

However, Graeme Jack, managing director of Trimedia, said he was impressed with Fathers4Justice. “I was interested in the story as it unfolded as I wanted to see how Fathers4Justice responded,” he says. “If it was a stunt it would be in total conflict with what they stood for until then. I perceived them as smart, media savvy and straight, so I thought the kidnap plot was horrific. What you’re looking for is an organisation to deal quickly and effectively with what’s facing them. What happened when Fathers4Justice found out about the plot was right and appropriate. They recognised there was a problem and that they had a potential media disaster on their hands.”

Jack believes that Fathers4Justice could re-invent itself, but would need to re-address how it gets its point across.

“They struck a cord with many people,” he says. “For them to reinvent themselves in another format it would give them a platform to address some of the criticism they’ve faced with the kidnap plot. There needs to be another layer to what they’re doing and they would need some serious lobbying to get their point across. But I don’t think this would affect their re-invention at all.”


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