Looking back on the story of A4e, I'm struck by the relationship over the years between its owner Emma Harrison and the media. To say that she was the face of the company is a gross understatement. She seemed to see the company as a reflection of herself. Her picture was prominent in their offices rather as dictators demand huge portraits of themselves all over their countries; and as the company grew so did her sense that it was all about her. Staff were "rewarded" by being invited to weekends camping in the grounds of Thornbridge Hall. The select few got to have "tea with Emma". Most of the employees saw this for what it was, but daren't say so out loud. Yet the media were continually charmed by her.
I didn't see the Secret Millionaire programme she made - and I'm glad of that. But whenever she was interviewed about her supposed area of expertise something strange happened. Harrison appeared on the Daily Politics once and was taken apart by Andrew Neil. Yet about a year later she appeared again, and got very soft treatment, as if Neil had forgotten the first interview entirely. Then she appeared on the same programme as "guest of the day" and contributed absolutely nothing. Channel 4's worthy Benefit Busters series featured two films made in A4e offices, and one of those at least should have set alarm bells ringing about what was happening in New Deal - but didn't. In a brief interview after the second film Harrison bragged about her contacts in government. It was then put to her that a big problem for the unemployed was that short-term work meant long delays in getting benefits again when the work stopped. What should be done about that? Her reply was memorable: "How should I know?"
On Radio 4's The Moral Maze it was Harrison herself who had to correct the presenter, who thought A4e was a charity. And on the Today programme the interviewer, Justin Webb, seemed mesmerised by her, asking no relevant questions and letting her talk rubbish. A high point (or low, depending on your point of view) came with her starring role in Famous Rich and Jobless, a horribly exploitative series of poverty porn. (Even today the BBC's website page for the programme describes A4e as "the largest employment agency in the world, responsible for getting thousands of people back to work".) Harrison was supposed to be an expert, helping and guiding. One unemployed man was recommended to go to a specialist agency. Problem solved? No. After the series was shown he was still out of work and very bitter towards Harrison, who had promised help. She couldn't do anything, she said, because A4e didn't operate in his area. In another series on another channel Harrison was pitted against another expert to find a job for someone who was "hard to help". She solved it neatly - by calling in a favour from a friend to give the lad a trial at a job. And she won.
Harrison had become a celebrity, employing a celeb agency to get her work, and she popped up regularly on such diverse shows as Eggheads (I missed that) and Masterchef (as a guest at a dinner to sample the contestants' efforts).
It must have been hard when all that stopped so abruptly. Perhaps that's why she agreed to the interview on Channel 4 News, long after her fall from grace, when the A4e WP results were leaked. Surely the media would be kind to her again? But that was in the past, and it was a disaster.
The media can build you up, but they can also bring you down.