Guernsey government’s response to ‘Gatlandgate’ was a masterclass in the art of poor communication

While there is no such concept as an ‘own goal’ in rugby, in truth Guernsey played a foul that enabled Warren Gatland to award a penalty for Jersey to kick for the win

Gavin St Pier. Picture: Peter Frankland.  (30709824)
Gavin St Pier. Picture: Peter Frankland. (30709824)

THE JEP’s editor has asked me to step into regular columnist Richard Digard’s shoes for a few months while he is engaged on another project. Given Richard’s lifelong career in journalism and 15 years as editor of the JEP’s sister paper, the Guernsey Press, his are extraordinarily large boots to fill and it is a somewhat daunting prospect.

With that in mind, I won’t attempt to replicate Richard’s commentary on Jersey politics. Tempting though that sometimes might be – and notwithstanding my role as Guernsey’s least-important politician – in my experience any Channel Island politician commenting on the politics of the other island needs to do so with great care and sensitivity to avoid creating a diplomatic incident.

I will instead turn my attention to observing the shared experience of the decision in relation to the location of the British Lions’ summer training camp in Jersey, or ‘Gatlandgate’ as some have referred to it in Guernsey. While I strongly endorsed Guernsey’s attempt to convert this opportunity and I would have loved the Lions to have chosen Guernsey, it would be churlish, when the final whistle blew, not to congratulate Jersey on winning this particular match.

What went right for Jersey? And what went wrong for Guernsey?

Some in Guernsey felt that it was an unfair contest from the start that Guernsey could never win, with the pitch tilted in Jersey’s favour. Proponents of this argument cited the Jersey Reds competing at a professional level in the RFU Championship as against the Guernsey Raiders competing at a lower level in National League 2 South. They also noted the existence of Jersey’s new Strive Academy and reference Jersey’s general propensity to throw a bit more cash at such opportunities.

This argument fails to take account of the fact that Warren Gatland was most unlikely to have bothered getting in his car and coming across to Guernsey on Condor over Easter if the Lions weren’t giving serious consideration to Guernsey as a possible alternate venue. Neither was he likely to make such a trip simply as a favour to the person who chairs the children’s rugby charity Wooden Spoon in Guernsey, whom he would have previously met having attended one of the charity’s legendary fundraising dinners and who appears to have catalysed the trip. Unless Mr Gatland was involved in a rather convoluted initiative to gain some leverage in his negotiations with Jersey, we must assume his visit to Guernsey was made in good faith and with an open mind.

I don’t know exactly how long Mr Gatland was in the island on Good Friday before rumours of his presence and perceived ‘special treatment’ in relation to the self-isolation rules were circulating like wildfire, suffice to say it was only a matter of a few hours. It appears that everyone involved was hoping to keep a veil of confidentiality over the trip until the following Tuesday, when he would have left. This might have been well intentioned, but it was absurdly naïve to imagine in a community of our size that any such commitment – if given – was deliverable. Guernsey’s government reacted ponderously and clumsily to this emerging news, pushing out an incomplete and inaccurate statement late on Saturday afternoon. No interviews were given until the following Tuesday; and a further incomplete, corrective statement was then issued on the Wednesday. The government has fessed up and apologised that it was ‘a little clumsy in the information’ it put out, which is a supreme understatement. In truth it was reactive, hopelessly slow, incomplete and misleading. In short it was a masterclass demonstration in how not to communicate, bringing to mind the well-known idiom: ‘When in a hole, stop digging.’ It is easy to imagine and blame some amorphous and faceless central comms machine for dropping the ball. In truth, no one seemed to take ownership or control, which makes the job nigh on impossible for the comms guys.

In the meantime, playing out on all media platforms, the community was cleft in two between those on the one hand who felt it was a golden economic, cultural and sporting opportunity being scuppered by a few moaning Minnies who couldn’t or wouldn’t see the bigger picture; and those on the other, who may have welcomed the opportunity but were appalled at the perception created of special rules for ‘them’ and not for ‘us’. It is little wonder then that Mr Gatland, who would not have been immune to this backdrop to his visit, might have questioned that however good or competitive Guernsey’s facilities, having been unable to handle one man visiting for two days, this might not be a community capable of providing a warm and rousing welcome to the whole team and its entourage for two weeks.

We will now never know in a straight match between Jersey and Guernsey whether Jersey would have won this particular contest anyway. While there is no such concept as an ‘own goal’ in rugby, in truth Guernsey played a foul that enabled Mr Gatland to award a penalty for Jersey to kick and win the game. Well done and good luck.

Gavin St Pier is a Guernsey politician. He previously served as the President of the island’s Policy and Resources Committee.

For more comment and opinion pieces, see today's Jersey Evening Post.

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