‘Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells’ has nothing on me. The more I have looked
into the background to the Scott inquiry into our trade with Iraq the
less confidence I have in whatever its report has to say this week. And
I was Krakatoan on the Richter scale when I saw the treatment meted out
by the media to Cedric Brown, retiring chief executive of British Gas.
Scott’s anti-PR can wait until next week. I must get Mr Brown off my
chest now. He was treated like a criminal on TV after BG had announced
its restructuring and his retirement on a pension of pounds 247,000 a
year, plus a pounds 120,000 one-year consultancy. The original fat cat
was pursued by a media mob down a corridor and cornered in a room in
which he was locked.
The police were summoned. The media refused to budge until Mr Brown had
explained himself on camera. The mob won. BG had yet another PR disaster
to its name. Mr Brown’s ‘was one of the most undignified corporate exits
since Robert Maxwell’s’, as the Daily Telegraph put it.
I am, of course, no stranger to the wolf pack. I know what it is like to
face it, red in tooth and claw, when it pursues its quarry, heaving,
seething, hissing and felling anyone in its way when it thinks it may be
denied. Mr Brown was not unduly maltreated in my experience. But it was
not a pretty sight - neither for British Gas, nor for anyone who has the
slightest desire to maintain free and unfettered journalism in Britain.
Next day I read the papers. And what did I discover? TV cameras had been
excluded from the BG press conference. Mr Brown had only reluctantly
submitted himself to writers’ questions. Reading between the lines, he
had evidently hoped to get away without saying anything to anyone about
the further riches, expressed in telephone numbers, he had managed to
acquire on his retirement. Worse still, judging from his eventual
performance, he had not prepared any persuasive defence of his position.
All this does not excuse the media from behaving like a posse bent on a
lynching. Sooner or later journalists will have to examine their
treatment of individuals in the public eye. They are abusing their
power. But so were British Gas and Mr Brown. Shareholders and consumers
alike are entitled to know what they have to say for themselves - in the
newspapers and on radio and TV alike. It is difficult to believe that
any professional could have advised the company to behave as it did. If
they did, then those professionals should consider their position
forthwith. If their advice was rejected, BG’s top brass should go
immediately. In this age of accountability, they are a menace to their
company - and to British industry.
Sir Bernard Ingham writes for the Daily Express