Moral in fable of the fiasco

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 July, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 July, 1998, 12:00am

Once upon a time there was a very large and populous country with a glorious past and future - and a present that just needed a little extra public relations work.

The President was working on it.

He'd had a good week. The leader of the super power on the opposite shore had been through for a quick visit and both sides' spin doctors had agreed the trip was a personal triumph for their own man.

Then he had headed off to a small but bustling Special Administrative City (SAC) on the periphery of his great nation to open a magnificent new airport.

Normally, he would not have bothered. But the local chieftain - the Executive Director, they called him, because the City's vocation was commercial, not political - had pressed for a little high-profile support from the capital. The place was going through an uncomfortable economic downturn and was in need of a good, confidence-building pat on the back.

Besides it was only a year since the City had been reunited with the President's country after an unfortunate and humiliating period of rule by Outer Barbarians.

Celebrating the first anniversary of its return with a presidential visit and a grand, telegenic airport inauguration ceremony had been good for the SAC and - he had to be honest with himself - good for the President.

So he travelled down there, did a bit of sightseeing, loosened his collar, shook hands with the public, twisted his tongue round a few words in the inelegant southern dialect they used there, and had shown himself a man of the people. He inspected the troops, despite the torrential downpours that seemed to be a hallmark of the place, and finally headed out for the new airport.

It had not seemed quite finished. Perhaps it was something to do with the hectares of wet concrete and the telephones with the disconnected wires hanging down the backs of the booths. But they assured him everything would be ready for full operation three days later.

So he had willingly done his part for the cameras.

Then after listening to speeches from the Executive Director and his underlings, the President had been accompanied out on to the tarmac and embarked on the inaugural international passenger flight.

He had flown across his vast country to a state on his northern border and signed a friendship treaty with a number of his northern neighbours. Under it, the other side agreed to curb the subversive activities of separatists infiltrating his country from the outside or operating beyond his reach.

It had all been very satisfactory. His face had appeared time and time again in the national media and for once the stories had been more than the usual round of boring visits to factories and farms.

But then it all began to go wrong. The start of operations at the airport was a disaster. The computers had broken down. Passengers missed flights. Baggage was lost, cargo handling ground to a halt. Goods perished in the terminal and began to stink.

Everyone was embarrassed and on the defensive, although that cunning Chief Secretary for Bureaucracy of theirs played her hand well by suddenly reminding everyone that the whole thing had been the idea of one of the Outer Barbarian governors.

Those beastly legislators in that confounded directly elected local council of theirs had started to describe the airport as the laughing stock of the world.

Laughing stock! And where did that leave him, did they suppose? What a loss of face, to have presided over the opening of such a huge fiasco. To have gone all the way to the steaming, rainy fringelands! And for what? To be indelibly associated in the world's eyes with a global public relations disaster.

Luckily, the legislators were only demanding the resignation of a few airport officials. Luckily.

They had missed the mark so far. But it was only a matter of time before they realised the political pressure for the early opening came from higher up. Wasn't the point to have the ceremony coincide with the anniversary of reunification? Hadn't that been the excuse for bringing in the President? Let them take it out on the airport bosses, he thought. But any hint of political trouble and another head would have to roll.

That Executive Director of theirs had better watch out.