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August 13, 2013

‘Rivers of Blunder’: Timeline of Chris Bryant’s migration media meltdown

By Louise Ashwell

“U-turns demoralise the loyal troops”, Chris Bryant MP told The Independent last year after a succession of Government policy reversals. But since Sunday, the tables have been turned on the shadow immigration minister as he was forced into a climb down of his own over a controversy played out in the media spotlight.

Here's how Bryant's media meltdown unfolded:

Sunday 11 August:

Bryant briefed The Sunday Telegraph saying that in a speech the following day he would accuse retailers Tesco and Next of “seeming to deliberately exclude British people” from jobs by deliberately hiring foreign workers, allowing them to pay lower wages. He leaked passages which described “unscrupulous employers whose only interest seems to be finding labour as cheaply as possible”.

The minister claimed that Tesco, in relocating its distribution centre to Kent, had favoured workers from Eastern Europe prepared to work for lower wages over local people, while Next were hiring Polish workers to evade agency regulations.

However, in subsequent articles reporting his comments (published the same day), the firms concerned were already claiming Bryant had got his facts wrong. A spokesman for Tesco told that its distribution centre was Essex, not Kent, and said:“It is wrong to accuse Tesco of this. We work incredibly hard to recruit from the local area, and have just recruited 350 local people to work in our Dagenham site”. 

Monday, 12 August

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Bryant made a series of media appearances in which he retreated from his previous comments. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I fully accept that Next and Tesco often go the extra mile to try and recruit local workers”. He had not been referring to Tesco and Next when discussing “unscrupulous employers”, he said, insisting newspapers had conflated two separate extracts from the speech.

Challenged on his factual errors by Today programme interviewer Evan Davies, Bryant responded: “You’re wanting to get into very specific details which are contested and I’m not sure that’s that fruitful”.

The comments were reiterated in interviews on ITV Daybreak, BBC Breakfast and Sky, and by the time Bryant delivered the speech, the passages concerning Next and Tesco had been substantially altered, the New Statesman notes.  

Contributing editor of The Spectator Harry Cole was apparently first to coin the phrase 'River of Blunder' on Twitter after the speech was delivered.

By Monday afternoon, the top three headlines on the Telegraph website page for immigration stories summmed up Bryant’s media messages over the last 24 hours: “Bryant defends attack on Tesco”; “Bryant backs down on Tesco” and “Labour sending strong and coherent message, says Bryant”.

Tuesday 13 August

Former Labour adviser Dan Hodges writing in the Daily Mail said Bryant's address was like “Enoch Powell’s River of Blood speech written by the scriptwriter of the Benny Hill show and delivered by Alan Partridge”.

Bryant got his version of events across via a column in The Independent which took the form of a diary of his day in the media spotlight. “I hold my ground”, he said about his Today interview performance, and delivered “what I hope is a cogent, reflective argument about how we can make immigration better for everyone” in his re-written speech.

After Bryant tweeted a link to his Independent piece, one user simply responded: “Blame the media”. 

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