Friday, 18 December 2009

My Villain of the Year

What a year it has been, the real challenge is getting all the nominations down into one 300 word blog.

My first nomination goes to the Phoenix Four who memorably brought MG Rover to its knees. The full DTI report has to be one of the best reads of the year with tales of dodgy Chinese consultants, pilfering escrow accounts, hunting estates in South West France, lying, bullying, cheating and greed. Never have the failings of four individuals been so ruthlessly exposed.

If this was a free vote, I am sure Mahmood Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, would garner the support of many, but I prefer to give special mention to the individual who helped rig an election, denying millions of people their democratic rights and, I suspect, pulls the real strings from behind the scenes (as Joe Klein in Time magazine pointed out). Step forward Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Whilst Fred Goodwin deserves a mention, for me he’s more of a 2008 villain despite his pension arrangements (he’s so yesterday). For me the title of ‘Banking Villain of the Year’ must go to Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, who memorably declared in an interview with the Sunday Times that he is “doing God’s work”. I admit my knowledge of the scriptures is poor, but didn’t Our Lord throw the money lenders out of the temple?

Tiger Woods has shown this year that hubris can still lead to nemesis. His extraordinarily arrogant behavior, particularly on the golf course (some spectacular club throwing at the Australian Masters can be viewed HERE) has only been matched by his whining public statements and willingness to use the British legal system to attempt to cover up his multiple transgressions with a dizzying number of Vegas cocktail waitresses.

However, whilst Mr Woods’ fall from grace has been spectacular, he poses no threat to world peace. Neither for that matter does my nomination for Villain of the Year (at the moment) but watch this space. This was the year when a politician compared herself to a dead fish (“only dead fish go with the flow”) whilst resigning from the Governorship of Alaska after only 18 months. Not for her the ‘drudgery’ of actually serving her electorate or compiling a political record before attempting a bid for the Republican nomination. No, far better, to charge tens of thousands of dollars for public appearances and write a self-serving book.

We can only hope that the people of Iowa will not fall for any of this when the Republican caucus takes place in January 2012.

My Villain of the Year is Sarah Palin.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

My Man of the Year

It’s that time of year again when Time Magazine unveils its ‘Person of the Year’ (I personally preferred the title ‘Man of the Year’ even if it was awarded to the fairer sex, but even Time has gone all PC) which inevitably got me thinking about who my choice would be.

For me, there are a number of contenders. Nancy Pelosi, first female speaker of the House of Representatives, has ruled over the chamber with a steely determination (you certainly wouldn’t cross her) reminiscent of the great speakers of the past, such as Sam Rayburn and Tip O’Neill. In Christine Lagarde, France has found a Finance Minister able to operate and, crucially, communicate on the world stage.

I also think a word of praise for Vice President Joe Biden is necessary. Expected by some to be a gaffe-prone embarrassment he is emerging as a major voice in the Obama Administration, particularly on Afghanistan, and has been charged with implementing the massive public spending programme designed to re-float the US economy. He is rapidly putting the lie to Lyndon Johnson’s old line that the job “is not worth a bucket of warm spit.”

Back at home (and this will be a controversial one) Peter Mandelson has shown what the Labour Party has been missing. His assured handling of the DTI (car scrappage, the MG Rover Investigation, GM sale of Opel to Magna) was only bettered by his superb handling and thwarting of the attempted coup d’etat on Gordon Brown in June.

There is only one contender for Heroic Act of the Year. When Captain Chesley Sullenberger ditched his plane in the Hudson River after a bird-strike had knocked out both his engines he saved dozens of lives and showed the sort of calm in a crisis situation which the rest of us can only hope we never have to face. There is another reason I love this story. As Sullenberger calmly checked the fuselage of the ditched plane to ensure that everyone had got out he was described as "looking like David Niven in an airplane uniform". Fantastic!

But, surprisingly perhaps, for those who know me, my choice is not a politician or an economist. There is one person who this year defied his age to almost achieve one of the greatest wins in sport. At the age of 59 you are pretty much past it as a contender in any game, but this man came within a whisker of winning the Open Golf Championship 26 years after his previous victory. His failure, at the very final hurdle, was a heartbreaking moment, but his humility in defeat, ready acceptance of the bad luck which contributed to his loss and refusal to feel sorry for himself were lessons that many of today’s superstars, across golf and other sports, would do well to learn.

My Man of the Year is the golfer Tom Watson.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Will Dave Grasp the Treasury nettle?

The news today that the Automotive Assistance Programme (AAP) the £2.3bn government scheme set up in January to provide funding for UK carmakers, has yet to help a single firm will come as no surprise to anyone in the business community.

AAP, not to be confused with car scrappage, was designed to give a short term boost to manufacturers to retain skilled jobs whilst we wait for any upturn. I have no doubt that many will point the finger at the Government over this, blaming incompetent Ministers for putting too much red tape in the way of much needed support for manufacturers and the automotive supply chain. Cameron will, no doubt, make hay at PMQs.

However, I suspect a larger issue is at work here, which Dave himself will have to grasp, if and when he comes to power.

The Treasury loves to raise and hates to spend money. Its favourite word is ‘No’. Those with long enough memories will remember how a perfectly good idea by the Department of Social Security nearly 20 years ago, namely getting absentee fathers to at least pay a small contribution to the upkeep of their children, morphed into the Child Support Act and a massive Treasury-inspired exercise in cutting the social security bill. Of course it didn’t work.

Have Whitehall mandarins deliberately placed too many hurdles in the way of firms accessing the money? More likely is that, in their mania to ensure value and accountability, they have placed too many hurdles in the way of firms accessing the money.

Whatever, it amounts to pretty much the same thing. No money has been spent on saving precious skilled jobs which will be needed if and when we come out of this.

If as Dave is now saying (he’s flip-flopped so many times on this I’m losing track) he intends to continue, at least in the short term, efforts to boost the economy, he is going to have to get his plans past the Treasury mandarins who say “Yes Prime Minister” to your face but then do nothing behind your back.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Fall of IMG

I have hesitated to comment on the Tiger Woods affair(s) primarily because it doesn’t naturally fall into my normal blogging sphere of interest, despite the fact that I do play golf.

However, I have listened to a lot of informed and not so informed comment by PRs on both sides of the Atlantic in recent days, offering advice on how to handle this crisis, the most often heard being that Team Tiger need to “get out in front of the story”. The problem I have with this theory is that it pre-supposes Mr Woods has been open and honest with his advisers about all of his failings or, more likely, that his management team, International Management Group (IMG), have been totally upfront about Mr Woods’ ‘transgressions’ with their retained PR advisers.

You can only get in front of something if you know the full extent of what has gone on. The impression you get at the moment is that Team Tiger is reeling from one revelation to the next with no idea how deep this hole actually is.

There is another, for me anyway, more interesting point in all of this. IMG has been the pre-eminent sports management agency (think Jerry Maguire) in the world for nearly half a century. Founded by the late Mark McCormack, golf was the foundation block on which IMG was built, in particular McCormack’s own personal relationship with the American golfer Arnold Palmer. IMG was the driving force behind Brand Tiger which has pulled in hundreds of millions of dollars in endorsement contracts based upon his clean cut image. The problem, as we are now seeing, is that the reality is not just slightly different from the brand but is actually poles apart. Wide enough for the media to drive multiple double decker buses through.

It would appear that, at best, IMG has been naïve in its dealings with Woods, at worst it has been party to an enormous public deception to make billions of dollars. Matthew Syed writing in The Times yesterday, eloquently explains why the money makes this a legitimate public interest story.

The collateral damage of this affair will almost certainly affect IMG as much as it does Woods. Mark McCormack will be turning in his grave.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Obama’s Surge

Blogging offers the chance for instant opinion, but sometimes I can’t help but think that it is better to let things percolate through the brain cells a while before hitting the keyboard. Having been confined to my sickbed for a few days last week it gave me chance to think through the wider implications of President Obama’s decision to send a further 30,000 troops into Afghanistan.

My initial reaction was that Obama was on a road very similar to that which both Nixon and Kissinger trod in the early 1970s. As in Vietnam, America is propping up a corrupt government with a well armed internal insurgency. For “building the Afghan army” read “Vietnamisation”, for “troop draw-downs” read “withdrawal timetable”. The President does not like this analogy, but as Thomas Friedman said on The Daily Show, Vietnam was the “elephant in the room” when political journalists were briefed over lunch last week.

There is a wider question now though for both American and British foreign policy which is, “can modern democracies with a free press fight open-ended commitment wars?” The reason I ask is that the reality of the matter is that UK deaths in Afghanistan, whilst tragic have been astonishingly low, particularly when you consider the closer quarter nature of much of the fighting. Circa 240 deaths for a near 10 year commitment.

However, this perspective is lost in the media reporting from Afghanisation. Each death is now covered in an extremely personal manner. We know names, details of their family lives, we see coverage of a convoy of black cars from RAF Lyneham; we even have archive television interviews with the fallen. It was Stalin who said “one death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic.” Without clear objectives and a timetable to “bring the troops home” it certainly looks like the British public cannot take too much more tragedy and that has deep implications going forward as to how troops are used in future. Short term, police actions such as that in Kosovo in the early 90s are likely to be the order to the day from now on.

Ultimately, Kissinger devised what became privately known as the ‘Decent Interval’ strategy to end American involvement in Vietnam. He knew the war was unwinnable, but tried to extricate America with as much face as he could retain. The idea was to build up South Vietnamese forces to a point where they could take up the burden of the fight long enough for America to extricate itself and leave a ‘decent interval’ before inevitable collapse. Ultimately American troops left in 1973 and the South collapsed two years later. Nobody will admit this is the plan for Afghanistan, but I suspect this is the road we are on.