Peter Stanford: How the Damian McBride 'event' has damaged Cafod

Cafod's name is on everyone's lips - but with connotations to worry any trustee, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

It's odd which memories stay with you. I have a clear picture of a 16-year-old schoolfriend running through a list of quotations before an O-level history exam in order to get an A grade. I was sceptical then, and remain so now, of famous quotes that are bandied about so freely.

There is one quote, though, that I can never quite expunge from my mind at trustee meetings. It is that time-honoured line attributed to the former Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. When he was asked what a PM feared most, Macmillan supposedly said: "Events, dear boy, events."

I think this line should be added as a footnote to all trustees' agendas, because it is events that floor us. No matter how carefully we plan, how thoroughly we carry out risk assessments or how diligently we seek to cover all eventualities, "events, dear boy, events" are what test our mettle.

For the past three decades, I have enjoyed a close relationship with the overseas development agency Cafod. For a while, I was chair of its media advisory group. It was one of those rare occasions when you feel, as a journalist, that you might just contribute to the sum total of good in the world. So I instinctively hasten to leap to the defence of the charity over the pasting that it has received over the publication of the memoir of its head of external communications, Damian McBride.

Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin, a mea culpa account of McBride's time as a scheming, ruthless spin doctor for the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, was serialised in the Daily Mail newspaper. The royalties, it was revealed, were going to be divided equally between Cafod and McBride's old school, Finchley Catholic High School in London.

However, so unpleasant were the book's revelations, and so appalled were the public and politicians alike, that Cafod has ended up being caught in the crossfire. A case of "events, dear boy, events"? Or was the whole sorry episode predictable?

There are two aspects to this saga. The first was the charity's decision to employ someone with a past - here the line from Cafod is clear and right. People make mistakes and charities should allow them a chance to use their skills to make amends. Think of John Profumo, the disgraced minister who devoted the rest of his life to volunteering at Toynbee Hall in London. There is a risk the person becomes the story, rather than the issue, but it is a risk that can be calculated by the senior management team and trustees.

So far, so good. But what about the other aspect - the hullabaloo surrounding the lucrative serialisation of McBride's book? There is a terrible frustration here. Cafod does amazing things for people in need around the world, but one of the struggles over the years has been to get details of these into the media. In general, stories from secular aid agencies are preferred to those from ones with an obvious connection to the church. It is the time in which we live. But now, with the McBride memoirs, Cafod's name is on everyone's lips - but with connotations to worry any trustee.

I know nothing of the decision-making behind the scenes, and have never even met McBride, but allowing him to publish while still in post might have been a calculated risk on the part of the management and trustees that the book would be taken - as the author surely intended - as a repudiation of the sort of spin culture he once epitomised. That could potentially reflect as well on Cafod in its decision to give him the benefit of the doubt and employ him. But such a judgement was, at best, naive.

One of the most important things that trustees must bear in mind at all times is that they are custodians of a charity's good name. The clue is in the very word - trustees, those who hold things on trust. As a wise old chief executive taught me, it takes years to build a charity's reputation, but it can be destroyed in minutes.

There is an element of "events, dear boy, events" about this whole episode, but there is also an element of predictability. The trustees could have done more to head it off.

Most damning of all was the trustees' hurried statement - after it had been repeated that the charity would receive part of the book's proceeds - to announce it would not accept the money. That was a decision that could have been reached well in advance. The negative impact on the good name of an outstanding charity could have been avoided. It is a lesson from which we can all learn.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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