“UNDERCOVER” (SHORT STORY)

Being a young communications adviser is no fun these days.

Especially in politics. Short-term election cycles mean short-term contracts, freelance projects and odd jobs you have to bid for. Hourly fees are falling while the cost of living soars and housing becomes unaffordable. Then there’s student loans to be repaid.

It seems impossible to get a foothold in the industry let alone life. Until you’re given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

How can you possibly say no?

Rated PG / 1,000 words / 4 minutes of contemporaneous reading pleasure

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‘Everything is politics.’ Thomas Mann

STEFANO BOSCUTTI

UNDERCOVER

Copyright 2023 Stefano Boscutti
All Rights Reserved

It wasn’t that the Yes Campaign didn’t care.

It’s that the Yes Campaign didn’t know any better.

I was drafted - yes, that’s the word - as a bright young communications adviser to work undercover on the Yes Campaign. To undermine their best intentions to give the indigenous people of Australia a voice to Parliament. To stop the recognition of indigenous people in the Australian constitution.

My cover was perfect. A new name, a new persona, a double psychology and media master’s degree from a name university, a place to call home, a politically correct partner, a cat. Even a London internship at People’s Vote, under the guidance of renowned strategic communicators Alastair Campbell and Tom Baldwin, former director of communications for the UK Labour Party.

One lie after the other. Except for a single psychology degree from a name university. But I’d never been to London. Never thought of myself as an Australian Labor Party supporter yet here I was.

To tell the truth, I wasn’t even sure who hired me. I suspect it was one of those covert government agencies with ties to the No Campaign. Not ASIS or ONI directly but one of those hidden departments deep within departments tasked with keeping Australia on the straight and narrow. I didn’t really care for politics. So I didn’t really care who was pulling the trigger.

Two handlers interviewed me in a bland city hotel suite. It was the middle of the day and the curtains were drawn. One man was sitting on the sofa, opposite me. The other man was standing, smoking a cigarette even though there was a plastic no smoking sign on the back of the door.

The man sitting opposite thanked me for coming, explained it was a formality. More protocol than anything.

‘It’s a three-month contract,’ he said.

On the low table in front of him was a new mobile phone. And a saucer with scattered ashes and three crushed cigarette stubs.

I knew I’d already been vetted and cleared. Or else I wouldn’t have been here. The man smiled.

‘Do you understand what’s expected of you?’

‘Of course.’

The Yes Campaign was in crisis. My job was to go in undercover and ensure the campaign fractured and imploded under its own weight.

I didn’t really want the job but the freedom it offered was hard to refuse. The brief was Psyops 101. Psychological and asymmetrical information warfare. I was to join the Yes Campaign’s communications committee and neutralise the campaign from the inside.

‘What’s your first point of attack?’

‘Make sure the Yes Campaign never has a single, unifying colour or logo. Promote diversity at every meeting. Get so many colours and logos out there that nothing stands out. Let everyone have a say. Let everyone do what they think is best.

‘What about copy.’

‘Make sure they never have a single, simple statement or unifying theme. Make sure they have multiple slogans that ideally cancel each other out. Make sure they never have a single slogan, especially one that sings.’

I’m reminded of the No Campaign’s unwavering use of ‘If you don’t know, Vote No.’ That simple call-and-response couplet. That rhythm and kick. It’s like an earworm. Just keep repeating it until it gets in.

Keep seeding doubt until non-action becomes the preferred choice. Don’t sell ‘no’. Unsell ‘yes’.

‘We want you to create communications mayhem in the Yes Campaign. We want to overwhelm and neutralise any and every campaign element.’

I’d done these kinds of operations before on some election campaigns. There’s quite an art to misdirection and miscommunication. Especially when such subterfuge can’t be overt, can’t be suspect in any way. 

Multiple frayed strings of communications that lose their resonance and power the moment they meet air. Evaporating any hope for change.

‘They’re already in a mess, you just need to muddy it up.’

In reality I needed to stay three or four steps ahead of any developments. It won’t be long before someone on the committee suggests using Barack Obama’s winning ‘Yes we can’ slogan. I needed to head that off at the pass.

The man in front of me leaned forward, reached his palm out.

‘Give me your phone.’

‘What?’

‘Do you want this job?’

Not really but it’s a three-month contract that would eliminate my student debt and provide a significant tax-free cash deposit into a new account at Migros Bank AG in Zürich. Did I mention real estate was also part of the contract?

I handed over my phone. He popped out the SIM card and passed it to the other man. Then slid the new mobile phone on the low table towards me.

‘It’s already been set for facial recognition and necessary security passes. If you try to remove the SIM card or chipset, or interfere with this phone in any way, the lithium-ion battery will set off a thermal chain reaction, will catch fire, and burn away.’

I wondered if it comes with a Mission Impossible opening song in five/four time. But that’s not the question I asked.

‘Is there an asset on the committee that will be looking out for me?’

‘Of course.’

‘Who?’

‘It’s best you don’t know.’

Best for who, I wondered.

‘You have a meeting with the committee head tomorrow.’

‘Where?’

He looks down at the new phone.

‘The details are on your new phone. It’s a calendar invite you’ve already accepted.’

‘Once the Voice referendum is held and the majority vote no we expect you to leave the country?’

‘Leave Australia?’

‘We have a place for you in France. You like France don’t you?’

‘Who doesn’t like France?’

‘It’s in the south, a small village. The property deed is in your name.’

‘The debts and cash bonus.’

He nods at the new phone.

‘All taken care of if you agree to do the job.’

I reached forward and picked up the phone.

And switched it on.


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Copyright 2023 Stefano Boscutti

All Rights Reserved


No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing.

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This is a work of fiction. While many of the characters portrayed here have counterparts in the life and times of political strategists and others, the characterisations and incidents presented are totally the products of the author’s furtive imagination. This work is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. It should not be resold or given away. Thank you for your support. (Couldn’t do it without you.)

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