Archive for July, 2009

Freedom of the Press

Posted in Uncategorized on July 9, 2009 by Tom Leatherbarrow

So much for the silly season. Today’s scoop in The Grauniad about phone tapping at the News of the World has been described by former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil as nothing less than the “most significant of our time” (and he should know).

Murky waters these and some of the biggest names in print media, including my former classmate Rebekah Wade (it was Rebecca when I knew her) appear to be up to their neck in it. There are several fascinating questions about the role of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in particular, but for media watchers one of the key ones is how other News International titles, in particular The Times, are going to react to this story.

Murdoch’s empire does not have a good track record in this regard. Witness the total refusal to run anything during the last but one NOTW related scandal back in 2003, namely the collapse of the Victoria Beckham kidnapping case (remember that?) which was ultimately referred to the Attorney General and was widely covered by all the other broadsheets.

Currently, The Times is running an item on Cameron’s backing of former NOTW editor Andy Coulson, who is the Tory chief’s communications adviser, following a “just the facts” story in this morning’s hard copy paper. But, the real question is whether Murdoch will give the paper its freedom to really go after this story by unleashing its investigative journalists and commentators. If this story mushrooms (and I think it will) while The Times sits on the sidelines it could totally undermine its credibility as a serious newspaper. One to watch.


In Retrospect . . . again

Posted in American Politics on July 7, 2009 by Tom Leatherbarrow

The title of yesterday’s blog was inspired by Robert S McNamara’s 1995 book in which the former American Secretary of Defense admitted, with hindsight, that he and others in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations got so many decisions “wrong, terribly wrong” in their running of the Vietnam War or, as it became known, “McNamara’s War”. It is a superb and controversial book, unsparing in its self-assessment of the author’s own failings, an apology for his role in inflicting the long nightmare of America’s involvement in South East Asia.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I got home last night and learned that McNamara had passed away that very morning. The Washington Post had immediately leapt into action and opened a discussion forum on McNamara’s life, inviting readers to post their own thoughts on his passing. Predictably, 95% of the comments were highly negative.

This is not the place, and we certainly don’t have the time, to start a discussion on American involvement in Vietnam, but I could not help thinking that, however controversial he may have been, at least McNamara had the honesty and courage to admit he was wrong, albeit thirty years later. I listened to McNamara speak at the Hay on Wye book festival many years ago and was hugely impressed by his humility and remorse. In an era of self-justificatory memoirs from politicians and those in public life, I doubt whether we will often see such courage again.

One final thought. Prior to becoming Secretary of Defense, McNamara was CEO of the Ford Motor Company and is generally credited with the introduction of the seat belt in the mid-1950s, in the process saving countless lives. Any fair assessment of his legacy will take this into account.

In Retrospect

Posted in business on July 6, 2009 by Tom Leatherbarrow

It’s not fashionable at the moment to publicly defend financiers, but the news that the Serious Fraud Office is investigating the Phoenix 4 who so memorably ‘saved’ Rover, is a reminder that financiers do, on occasion, get things right.

Those of us with long enough memories can remember how John Moulton of Alchemy Partners, the venture capitalist, was treated, by Sir Ken Jackson of the AEEU engineering union in particular, when he came up with the plan to turn Rover into a niche sports car manufacturer, based on the MGF design. I remember words like parasite and asset stripper were freely used.

The story of Moulton’s involvement with Rover is worth repeating, if for no other reason than to remember the dire straits the company was in. Moulton was attending a board meeting at Hayden McLennan as non-executive director when he learned by chance that the firm had run out of its main product, namely camouflage netting. He enquired why, and was told that they simply couldn’t meet the demand from their primary customer, Rover, to disguise acres and acres of its unsold new cars in fields up and down the country (honestly, you can’t write comedy like this).

Moulton’s plan was brilliant but unorthodox. He convinced BMW to sell him Rover at a knock down price and cover its losses by selling Land Rover to Ford with the sweetener, for BMW, of keeping the prized Mini Cooper brand made at Cowley.

Moulton made no secret of the fact that there would be job losses, but the trade unions went on the search for a White Knight and duly found one in the shape of the Phoenix 4 who promised to retain all jobs at Longbridge and continue manufacturing in the volume car market, up against Ford, Vauxhall etal. The end was inevitable, although it took five years.

As Moulton said at the time: “The reality is, there are two choices, no jobs or some jobs.” How right he was and what a pity he was unable to put his plan into action.

Never mind the width, feel the quality (ooh .. er .. madam!)

Posted in Media on July 1, 2009 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Apologies for the Kenneth Williams inspired headline, but I have been asked to put down my thoughts on the alleged demise of the Birmingham Post.

Rumours continue to circulate (much denied I hasten to add) that the Post is going to go to a weekly format. For those like myself who are only now dipping a cautious toe onto the communications superhighway, this would be a tragedy, if not of biblical proportions, then certainly enough to make me a bit grumpy!

Walk into any professional services firm within a ½ mile radius of Colmore Row and you will find the Post. Partners, associates and mere minions like myself pick it up and give it a flick through every day. It’s readership may be relatively small, but it is of the very highest quality.

I am reminded of a story from across the pond which occurred during the first season of the great American TV series Hill Street Blues (they don’t make ’em like that anymore!). Anyway, ratings for the first few episodes were disappointingly low and NBC considered cancelling the whole thing until a bright spark in the advertising department pointed out that those who were tuning in were exactly the sort of viewer, young urban professionals with high disposable incomes, that key advertisers like BMW and Mercedes Benz were struggling to connect with.

Hey presto, a new strategy was born, premium television with, crucially, premium advertising rates. I’m not saying the same strategy would work for the Post. I fear the global downturn for the newspaper industry will demand a far more subtle strategy than just putting up prices. But, there has to be some way to keep this institution, which offers such a valuable means of engagement with such a high quality readership, as a daily going concern.