He was the BBC’s first business editor, and had the blessing of the then director general Greg Dyke ‘not to go native, but be an agent of change’. Yet late last year, Jeff Randall, returned to what he likes best – newspapers – as editor-at-large of The Daily Telegraph.
‘It was easier in the early days to grab the attention of the BBC’s output editors, who are the news barons,’ explains the former city editor of The Sunday Times and launch editor of Sunday Business. ‘But you had to accept that with the Ten O’Clock News you’d sometimes go weeks without being on.’
The remark is a disarmingly honest one, given that Randall – PRWeek’s Communicator of the Year in 2004 – is often credited with making commerce accessible to a more general audience and winning the trust of the City. Yet for someone who confesses to never really being a ‘BBC man’, and who recently remarked that the corporation ‘treated business [news] as if it was a criminal activity’, the comment makes a lot more sense, given that Randall’s passion is firmly rooted in print. He was, for instance, frustrated at having to give up his Sunday Telegraph column following the Hutton report, after which the corporation reined in those staff outside interests.
‘TV news has an immediacy, an impact,’ he says of broadcasting. ‘But after a while, it felt more like chewing gum than eating a sumptuous meal. On a good night you have 90 seconds, but you had to make sure you didn’t lose the grannies sipping their cups of tea. There is a skill in it, but journalistically it was not particularly challenging.’
Nascent PR skills
Although he may be off our screens, Randall does at least feel he has left a good legacy at the BBC in terms of reporting business stories, and he firmly believes that the attitude of City PROs changed after his arrival. His own style was the fair, no-nonsense reporting of financial stories, such as Philip Green’s attempted takeover of Marks & Spencer, and the departure of media baron Conrad Black. His face seemed set in a permanent frown, yet in person he is quite jovial, and it seemed to appeal to comms professionals.
‘It used to be that PROs unequivocally had a view about clients: don’t put them on TV, because it’s only an opportunity to screw up,’ says Randall. ‘Then one or two firms worked out that this was an opportunity to put their case to five or six million viewers who were probably also customers.’
Part of Randall’s fairness stems from an unusual familiarity with the PR profession. In the mid-1990s, between spells as The Sunday Times City and business editor and the paper’s assistant editor and sports editor, Randall was deputy chairman of City PR firm Financial Dynamics. As the BBC’s economics and business centre editor, Daniel Dodd noted that when Randall first joined, ‘he spent a lot of time telling PROs why they should be talking to the BBC. The result has been a big improvement in the availability of executives for interview.’
But, as in broadcasting, Randall says he was never really a born PR man either. ‘It became apparent very quickly that the bit of PR I liked, and was good at, was winning accounts: drawing up a pitch, explaining to companies why they needed you, giving them a view from inside a national newspaper,’ he says.
‘But I realised that once you’ve won an account, you have to manage it. And not all of these accounts would set my heart racing with excitement. We won a big utility – it would be unfair to say which one – but when a win seems like a loss, you’ve got to leave.’
But there must have been positives about his move into PR? There were. ‘It made me more aware of journalists, and how irritating and sloppy they can be. Dealing with one particular national newspaper journalist is a case in point. One of our clients was Ladbrokes, which is owned by Hilton. He kept writing “Ladbrokes, owned by Intercontinental”. I phoned him to explain. Ten days later, he did it again. When I phoned him again to point it out, he made a disparaging comment about “PR people always wanting to pick holes”.’
Coming to the BBC, Randall could have been forgiven for thinking he would need all of those nascent PR skills to get his voice heard in an alien environment. He laughs. ‘In my most vivid, wild, crazy dreams I never saw myself there. Everyone knows I have certain views on life.’ His former boss Greg Dyke explained to PRWeek what these are: ‘Here is a bloke who believes that George W Bush is too left wing. The BBC newsroom is basically a liberal institution. He was a revelation.’
Randall feels no acrimony towards the BBC – he still presents BBC Radio Five Live’s Weekend Business on Sundays – but says that one thing he won’t miss is the workload. ‘It got to Andy Marr [former BBC political editor] in the end, too,’ he recalls. ‘When you have the title “editor”, you are a dog on a piece of string, 24/7. They never leave you alone. The more outrageous the request, the more junior the researcher they’d get to call you and ask “have you seen the wires yet?” This is usually just before 6am! Funnily enough, I don’t have Bloomberg piped into my bedroom.’
Randall has also been more than slightly critical of David Cameron, memorably describing the former director of comms at Carlton Communications as a ‘PR flunky’. This is not the sort of language one might expect from the Torygraph’s star columnist about the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, but Randall has his reasons. They go back to an exchange when Randall was editor of Sunday Business. ‘It is no secret that I feel he ran the extra mile to try to ensure that I didn’t believe a [particular] story was true.’
PROs might wonder what they would have done in Cameron’s place. Randall, as you might expect, has the answer: ‘He had two options: he didn’t have to take my call, or he could have given me an off-the-record briefing. But doing what he did colours my view of him as a man of integrity. Not all PROs have the moral courage to do the right thing. The very best do, and they survive and prosper. David Cameron made a very big mistake.’ There is a chill in the room. Yet isn’t it harsh to judge a man’s integrity in one area of his life on a single exchange with him in another? Randall thinks about this, then says: ‘I like horse racing. I read the form book. Horses that run in a certain way on a certain track invariably repeat that.’ The conversational temperature has not got any warmer.
‘We’re drifting into party politics, which I did not want to do,’ he says, before offering another view on what the Tory party should – and should not – be about. PROs should not be put off, however. In his Telegraph and Five Live roles, they are still on his radar. ‘PROs will have worked out that I’m paid to have trenchant views: columns have to say something. “On the one hand, on the other hand” doesn’t work.’ Meanwhile, his radio show, he says, thrives on conflict: ‘We are very keen to get on people who are in a moment of friction.’
He argues that, far from there being a dearth of business figures around, things are better than at any time since the 1980s. ‘Take M&S. Everyone knows who Philip Green is, who Stuart Rose is. Bitter battles help to raise profiles. It’s good to have a profile, although not at the expense of credibility.’
This is probably something that gives him pause for thought, since the idea of business as prime-time entertainment has had a surprising boost of late with shows such as Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice. Sir Alan Sugar even asked Randall to view the pilot of the latter, and he was impressed with the Amstrad boss’s screen presence. ‘He was so magnificently ghastly that I knew it would succeed. Toe-curlingly good. I think he’s camped it up a bit,’ he laughs. ‘It’s Alan Sugar doing a very good Alan Sugar impression.’
Randall has yet to decide whether the BBC’s business output has changed for the worse since his departure. ‘I’ve seen business stories on TV, but I’m not sure yet…’ The jury is certainly out on his successor, former Sunday Telegraph City editor Robert Peston, but Randall loyally insists he must be given time to find his feet: ‘No one compares Robert’s first performance with my first.’
Randall is often portrayed as a blokeish bruiser, but this misses the point. He is from the ‘hard but fair’ school, but you still cross him at your peril. And one thing is for sure: Conservative party PROs have a great deal of work to do if they want to win him over.
Career Path: Jeff Randall
The Daily Telegraph
Assistant editor and sports editor,
The Sunday Times
Deputy chairman, Financial Dynamics
City and business editor,
The Sunday Times, and director of Times Newspapers
City correspondent, The Sunday Telegraph