Chapter One: A Small Consolation
The Right Honorable Jim Hacker frowned as he surveyed the paper he held. His eternal nemesis, the media, had done it again. No, it wasn't another headline criticizing him; it was the absence of a headline - or a mention, anywhere at all, for that matter - that had raised his ire.
"How deplorable," he declared, "these journalists are. If the government had failed to secure this contract, that would have been front page news."
"Yes, minister," Sir Humphrey replied, his signature conciliatory, inverted smile that only just hinted at private satisfaction or amusement, upon his face.
"How many jobs will this bring to Britain - and in a key constituency," Hacker continued. "That is, a depressed area."
"And, if the press would do its job, and report government triumphs as well as failures, well, it would be a huge vote winner too!"
"Confidence boost, don't you mean, minister?" Bernard offered.
"Right," Hacker nodded. "Confidence in this government, and what it can achieve for Britain!"
"Yes, minister," Humphrey consoled again, with perhaps a touch too much sarcasm in his tone.
Frowning more deeply, the MP surveyed the civil servant. "Are you telling me that you're not appalled by this, Humphrey?" he asked. "That you don't believe the public has the right to know what a triumph has been won for its benefit?"
With an effort which was apparent at a glance, Sir Humprhey battled with the upward twitching corners of his mouth for a moment before answering slowly, "Of course not, minister. Of course I believe - without delving into the needlessly tedious and, anyway, ultimately peripheral topic of what the people in general do and do not have a right to know - that this instance of your triumph, your statesmanship, duly deserves the full weight of public scrutiny which you would draw to it; however, as I'm sure you will concur, from previous encounters of a less than felicitous nature with that class of troublemakers, rabble rousers and rumor spreaders - journalists - the absence of positive attention on any topic, let alone a triumph, is not in and of itself, with all things considered, an outcome of a less than desirous nature."
The lines in Hacker's forehead etched deeper as his frown continued to grow. "Are you saying you agree that this is an outrage, or that you disagree?"
"Well, minister," Humprhey smiled, "I hope you would not press me to such a premature, one might say, recklessly hasty, endorsement or rejection of so cogent and masterfully expressed an argument as yours; however, if one were pressed to come down in either favor or opposition of the aforementioned viewpoint, one might find oneself drawn toward the negative."
Furrows in his brow, Jim demanded, "Is that a yes or a no?"
"To what, minister?"
"What do you mean, to what?" the MP wondered, exasperated. "What have we just been talking about? Do you agree with me, or do you not agree with me?"
"I think," Bernard put in, "Sir Humphrey wanted clarification..."
"No clarification, Bernard!" Jim snapped. He knew well enough what Bernard's version of clarification meant. "All I'm asking, Humphrey, is if you're on the side of these blasted papers, or on my side?"
An expression of shock crossing his face, the civil servant declared, "Yours minister, of course!"
"Then you agree that it's an outrage that they've ignored yet another triumph of this government's?"
"Another, minister?" Humphrey asked, a smirk returning to his lips.
"Another, Humphrey, another! But that's not an answer to my question."
"Well..." Humphrey started, "I'm not certain..."
"Yes or no, Humphrey!"
Humphrey sighed. "Well, minister, if you must force such an unequivocal and ultimately misrepresentative opinion, than, no, I do not think it is an outrage."
Jim gaped at him.
"Allow me to explain, minister," Humphrey continued. "With a press hostile to the government, it is logical that no news is good news. Had this story been covered, it almost certainly would have been covered in a negative light. Therefore I do not think it is an outrage, but rather a piece of good fortune, that the papers have not touched upon it."
"Good fortune?" Jim repeated, aghast. He was practically at a loss for words; this was one of the greatest triumphs his entire government had achieved, from the PM down to him or any of his colleagues, and Humphrey thought it was "good fortune" that it went unmentioned?
"Yes, minister. Consider...since this government came into power, upwards of ninety percent of press coverage has been negative. Eight percent has been neutral - and only two percent has been positive!" He shrugged. "So, with a ninety-eight percent chance that anything said about your scheme would be indifferent or bad, it does indeed seem a piece of fortune that nothing was said. From the point of the statistics, at least."
Jim's frown returned. "But...but how could they possibly say anything bad about this? How, indeed, could they say anything neutral?"
Humphrey shrugged, his smile now full-blown. "Well, minister, the possibilities are really endless when one applies his mind to it. For instance, what if the papers had read 'Hacker Sends British Workers into Fields of Toxic Waste'? Or 'Hacker's Toxic Political Landscape'?"
Jim recoiled. "But we're clearing acres and acres of wasteland, sanitizing and reclaiming polluted land! The jobs alone that this will create -"
"Ahh!" Humphrey interjected. "Another fine angle. 'Jim's Toxic Solution to Unemployment'. Or 'Jim's Toxic Attack on Unemployed'."
Perspiration was forming on the minister's brow at these suggestions, and he was very glad – as bizarre, in the light of his and Humphrey's uneasy relationship, as it seemed – that the civil servant worked for him, and not the Times or BBC. "Surely, not even a journalist would..." He didn't bother to finish the sentence, because the absurdity of it was too great.
"Exactly, minister," Humphrey nodded. "So, you see, it could be worse than a lack of headlines."
"Yes," the minister nodded. "Quite." He frowned again. "Still, I wish the press wasn't so...so..."
Humphrey nodded. "Quite, minister."
"The public has a right to know, you know, what I'm doing for them."
"I think you mean the government, minister," Bernard suggested.
Hacker nodded. It really was absurd. He had single-handedly secured a long sought after contract to clear acres and acres of polluted, hazardous land and rehabilitate it for future use, and even this the press could find a way to turn into a bad thing. "Oh well," he spoke after a moment, "once the project gets underway, it will be hard for them to ignore it any longer. And, by that time, the benefits will already have begun to manifest themselves...so it will very difficult to spin it as a blunder." It was a small consolation, but it would have to do for now.