See you in court

"Never trust the British", tweeted an American journalist following the war of words and legal threats that has erupted battle between two of the biggest figures in the technology world.

Meg Whitman, former boss of eBay and now CEO of computer hardware giant, Hewlett Packard (HP), whose share price has halved this year as it struggles to respond to smartphones and tablets.

Mike Lynch, founder and former CEO of acclaimed British software company, Autonomy plc, who stands accused of "a wilful effort" to cook the books to facilitate its $11bn sale last year to HP.
PwC has been called in to investigate; the matter has been referred to UK and US regulatory authorities. So who's message is winning out in the media?

That might depend on whether you are following the American or British media. In the UK, the BBC, FT, Sunday Times and even The Guardian have sympathised with Lynch who flatly denied the allegations. They observe that this year, HP has written down $19bn of the $26bn it has spent buying EDS, Palm, Compaq and Autonomy; fraud couldn't account for writing down Autonomy by $8.8bn; or such a huge figure remain undetected during an exhaustive due diligence process by bankers and auditors before the sale.

American media pointed out that analysts and Oracle's boss, Larry Ellison, had questioned Autonomy's accounting practices and honesty in the past. The Wall Street Journal committed a front page to detailing some of Autonomy's alleged scams. The New York Times highlighted how Lynch worked his engineers "remorselessly hard" and "wouldn't work with anyone" at HP.

Lynch released to the press a letter he wrote to HP's board demanding "immediate explanations" for its "highly damaging allegations" and challenged it to detail them. HP rebuffed him, stating that it looked forward to hearing Lynch "answer questions under penalty of perjury" in court. Ouch.

If Whitman is right, Lynch's reputation is toast and he's in jail. If she cannot prove a huge, deliberate fraud, she is out of a job. No wonder it's got so dirty so quick.

Takeaway Tips

Why have both sides indulged in such a public PR battle? For Whitman, under investor pressure, she gets to blame her predecessor, take credit for confronting an issue head-on and create time for a new strategy as the investigations and any legal processes drag on.

Lynch, instead of hiding behind lawyers, has muddied the waters and established a narrative about HP while the allegations are so sketchy. With HP's shares at a decade low, a history of overvauing its acquisitions, a succession of failed strategies and a new CEO who praised her predecessor's Autonomy deal, it is easy to argue that HP is the author of its own misfortune and attempting to distract attention from it.

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