The Daily Telegraph: Stranger than fiction - I couldn't have invented it
By Jeff Randall (Filed: 28/03/2004)
For reasons too tedious to discuss, the BBC's governors have banned the corporation's correspondents from writing for outside publications. So, dear reader, this is my final contribution to the Telegraph.
What a privilege it has been to occupy this soapbox. I began in September 2001: the weekend after the attack on the Twin Towers. We all knew that the atrocity would bring lasting change, but nobody could be sure how it would reshape the world of commerce and finance.
Reporting on business events since then has been like having a front-row seat at the best show in town. We've seen spectacular scandals, corporate collapses and reputations ruined. A lot of what has happened (Enron, WorldCom etc) would have been way beyond the creative powers of even the most fertile scriptwriter.
Imagine if I had called Ladbrokes 30 months ago and asked: what price that all three of Britain's main television companies - BBC, ITV and Sky - will say goodbye to their top men by the end of 2003? I'd have been put straight through to the odds compiler who handles mad "novelty" bets, such as Elvis arriving in Guildford, or Shell correctly forecasting its oil reserves.
The ousting of the telephobic Michael Green from ITV was a landmark in shareholder activism. For all his talents, Green's habit of treating investors with the kind of disdain that banana-republic generals reserve for useless flunkies was a bad mistake. He wasn't nice to them on the way up; on the way down, they took brutal revenge.
Greg Dyke's exit from the BBC was no less bloody. Much loved within the corporation, he wasn't as popular with its governors as he had hoped. After Lord Hutton's demolition job, Greg offered to resign, inviting the governors to show their support. Instead, they showed him the door.
By contrast with Green and Dyke, Tony Ball walked away from Sky smelling of roses and stinking rich, having trousered £25m-plus in pay and shares. Not bad for keeping an unbroken train on the tracks.
Other high-profile heads that rolled during my time on these pages were Lord Simpson at Marconi; Graham Wallace at Cable & Wireless; and, of course, Sir Philip Watts at Shell. While the details of each departure were different, there were common themes: colossal destruction of shareholder value and a period spent in denial.
Of the three, Simpson was by far the most genial. If you found yourself next to him at a dinner party, you were in for some top-quality gossip. By contrast, Wallace had the air of a man who collects bus timetables. Compared with Watts, however, even Wallace seemed like a party animal.
Watts was known as a poor communicator. That was on a good day. More often than not, he was surly, arrogant and aloof. He did for Shell's public relations what an oil spill does for environmental protection. Having presided over a blue-chip company that misled its investors, Watts's outlook is blacker than a barrel of Brent crude.
Elsewhere in the stranger-than-fiction file, there has to be room for Coca-Cola selling tap water with specially added carcinogens, postal unions voting against strike action at the Royal Mail, and the blow-out at ITV Digital which, having overpaid to cover Nationwide football, disappeared up its own set-top box.
The joy of writing for the Telegraph's knowledgeable readership is that the process is rarely a one-way street. On the few occasions I got things right, some of you were kind enough to send appreciative notes. These included healthy correspondence on the shocking rise in Britain's personal debt. For me, this is the time-bomb ticking under our economy.
Of course, when I got it wrong (more times than I care to admit), I found myself readily skewered by your facts, figures and acerbic observations. Not all the comments can be printed in a family newspaper, but among the more colourful criticisms was one on a postcard that accused me of being a "worn-out, anti-American socialist".
Why? Because I had written that I didn't like US waiters with cheesy grins urging me to "have a nice day".
That was nothing, however, compared with the world-class insult I received many years ago from a reader in Kilburn, who really did write to me in green ink. He was furious over a positive piece that I had penned about Forte, the hotels-and-restaurants group. This nutter detested Forte - and, boy, did he let me know it.
After a dozen or so pages of scintillating bile, he finally revealed the cause of his mighty anger: Forte had introduced portion control at his favourite café, thereby preventing him from scoffing 'til he popped. This deed, in the mind of my maniacal correspondent, was right up there with stealing from children's charities.
What's more, his enemy's friend was his enemy - and that meant me. With great gusto he rubbished my reporting skills, my powers of analysis and my news-sense. For page after page, he smashed away at my self-esteem with sledgehammer prose. He carpet-bombed me with gratuitous abuse. He even had the audacity to include his name, address and telephone and fax numbers.
As I staggered to the end of this awesome assault, I was becoming punch drunk. But I hadn't reckoned on him saving his best shot 'til last. On the final page, there was a PTO. I turned over, and in capital letters, the PS said: BY THE WAY, IF I HAD A FAT, SMUG, UGLY FACE LIKE YOURS, I WOULDN'T PUT MY PICTURE IN THE PAPER.
Sir, your wish has come true. The picture is going and so am I. For the final time, over and out.