Sir Philip Green-The Man, The Media and The Myth
'My battle with the bullying billionaire', Sunday Times business writer Oliver Shah's excoriating account of his expletive-laden encounters with Sir Philip Green over that £1 sale of BHS deserved to give the flamboyant business tycoon a Sunday breakfast bout of indigestion.
But breakfast has tended to be a repetitively severe digestive challenge of late as Britain's national media has finally unleashed its investigatory wrath on this one virtually untouchable titan of the retail world. And, you suspect, that even Sir Philip's formidable gut and fabled rhino-thick skin may be feeling the strain.
But the escalating scandal surrounding Sir Philip's sold for a quid deal that handed over one of Britain's oldest high street names to a dodgy twice-bankrupt ex-racing driver with no retail reputation and a track record of financial failure and reckless irresponsibility begs a department store-sized series of questions for Britain's newspapers and investigative broadcasters.
Were we too in awe of Green's carefully-crafted PR image of the iconic, infallible Master of the High Street Universe, the man with the Midas touch? Well, yes, the answer is guilty. But with certain (belated) exceptions, The Sunday Times and Private Eye over the last year or so the most notable. And with the Daily Mail more recently dishing out an almost daily serving of opprobrium over Philip's handling of the BHS deal, the £571m deficit plight of its pensioners and the Monaco tax exile status of the tycoon's spouse, Lady Green, in whose name so much of his retail empire is held.
The only mitigation for the media, perhaps, is that they weren't alone, as Sir Philip was feted (and knighted) by an awestruck Tony Blair and, more recently, appointed a business 'efficiency' czar by David Cameron. They, too, should have found Oliver Shah's illuminating account in the Sunday Times far from digestible breakfast fare.
Threats and charm offensives aside, some business journalists I know privately insist that Sir Philip's retail empire's big budget advertising spend was a factor in mainstream media bosses' reluctance to probe the BHS story much earlier. One told me: 'The Sunday Times did a fantastic job over the last. 12 months and deserve to win an award, but it's also fair to say a title with Rupert Murdoch's deep pocket behind it was much better placed to risk Sir Philip's wrath in tough times for many newspapers' finances'.
A point to Murdoch's credit worth noting as his UK titles continue to suffer the flak from the Hillsborough fallout.
With admirable candour, Shah chronicles how for a long time the Sunday Times enjoyed a 'special relationship' with Green. It had charted glowingly his unstoppable rise as he bought the BHS department store chain, took over the Arcadia Group (owners of Topshop and Dorothy Perkins among other familiar High Street names) and narrowly failed with two hostile bids for Marks & Spencer.
Today Oliver Shah's account of how that relationship with the Sunday Times turned sour is not only a powerful public interest piece of journalism, but should be salutary reading for the two parliamentary select committees poised to quiz Sir Philip and Lady Green and the Pension Protection Fund and The Pension Regulator who are probing the BHS sale, demise and the chronic state of its pension fund. Meanwhile there are cross-party calls from some MPs for Green to be stripped of his knighthood. Against this backdrop, it's well worth quoting Oliver Shah's article at length.
'It started on a damp Thursday afternoon in March last year. I was in BHS's headquarters in Marylebone Road, central London, with Sunday Times business editor Dominic O'Connell. We had been summoned for an audience with Sir Philip Green. That morning, after months of rumours, he had announced that BHS, which had faded away under his ownership while the core of his empire thrived, had been sold for a token £1. He wanted to give just one interview about this, and there was no question which newspaper would get it.
'Green has two sides. One is the ruthless businessman who chews up opponents without mercy. The other is the whip-smart charmer with a surprisingly sensitive side. On this occasion, he was on top form,the Green-o-meter flickered towards bonhomie.
'The BHS boardroom was a shrine to his success. There was a photograph of him receiving his knighthood from the Queen, a framed collage of newspaper headlines, and a model of his Gulfstream G550 private jet, a gift from his wife, Tina. The bookshelves were lined with bound volumes of his press cuttings'.
Personally I've only met Sir Philip Green once and it wasn't in his boardroom. But Shah's description, and my own brief encounter, reminded me of another tycoon I once worked for and whose huge ego, thirst for personal publicity (strictly when it suited him) and ability to turn on a slightly menacing brand of larger than life charm that defined him.....Robert Maxwell. Now, it's important to say here that I'm not suggesting for a moment that Sir Philip Green bears responsibility for the type of criminal plundering of his employees' pension fund that Maxwell carried out. But, without doubt, he is facing a forensic examination in the media and from the regulatory authorities into the moral, ethical and perhaps legal failures associated with his sale of BHS to the former bankrupt and reputational reprobate Dominic Chappell, and the disastrous history of the company's pension scheme.
Back to Oliver Shah's eye-popping account: 'The mood changed abruptly when I asked what it would mean for his reputation if BHS were to go bust under its new owners, an unknown consortium called Retail Acquisitions.' (*The acquisition vehicle used by Chappell, with some dubious associates, to purchase BHS).
'Am I really going to get into that debate'? he snapped. 'If I give you my plane, right, and you tell me you're a great driver and you crash it it into the first f*****g mountain, is that my fault?'
Writes Shah: 'I had no idea this would be my last remotely civil conversation with him. Not did i realise, despite the £1 deal's bad smell, that we were going to unravel one of the biggest corporate scandals in years. Green had paid more than £400m of dividends from BHS to his wife in the tax haven of Monaco and two partners during his 15-year ownership. In selling the store chain, he escaped immediate liability for its £571m pension black hole. But he handed responsibility to someone who turned out to be incompetent and who would suck out millions of pounds before BHS went into administration last Monday'.
Shah also accurately recounts how, although Sir Philip Green has seen his reputation savaged in the media over the past week and via public and political outrage over the implications for BHS's 11,000 staff and 20,000 pensioners, 'initial reaction was muted, however, a year ago'.
Explains Shah tellingly: ' Now the facts are out in the open, this seems perplexing. But it would be hard to overstate the influence Green exercised over the media. With his £3.2bn fortune, volatile temper and willingness to help favoured reporters, the Topshop owner rarely used financial public relations companies. Alone with his discontinued Nokia 6310 mobile phone, he was the master of PR.'.
Shah readily admits that it was a Twitter post hinting at new owner Chappell's 'chequered past' that helped set him on the investigatory trail, with a quick search of Companies House records revealing a long list of bust companies, bad debts and dodgy deals that would have been available to Sir Philip Green even cursory checks had been conducted prior to the BHS quid sell off.
Sensing a negative story in the making, Shah tells how Sir Philip tried to neuter it by arranging an interview with new owner Chappell-ironically in Green's old BHS HQ boardroom. It didn't work and on 29 March last year the Sunday Times ran the first of its series of articles, with the headline : 'Revealed: the trail of disasters behind the mystery buyer of BHS.'
It's fair to say that the Sunday Times revelations received relatively limited follow-up interest across the rest of the media (although Private Eye, to its credit, was also independently digging into the BHS deal and the Chappell crew's history.)
Oliver Shah recalls how that initial Sunday Times article sparked more informants contacting the paper. Key was the revelation that the BHS deal had been put together by Paul Sutton, a convicted fraudster, who had been forced to hand it over to Chappell after angry creditors delivered details of Sutton's criminal conviction to the Greens' Monaco home.
When Shah called Green and mentioned Sutton's name to the tycoon, the reaction was explosive. 'It was my first experience of the hairdryer treatment. Take a look in the mirror, there are 11,000 jobs at stake here. This is going to get very ugly. I've never had a fight with the Sunday Times before, but I'll fight if that's what you want'.
The Sunday Times article this weekend details how Sir Philip's lawyers sent an aggressive 4-page letter that failed to stop a major April 12, 2015 article headlined: 'Fraudster's link to the £1 sale of BHS'. It prompted, reports Shah, a 'ballistic' phone call from Green in which the tycoon said; 'If I was Chappell I wouldn't bother with lawyers, I'd come round to your office and punch you on the f*****g nose'.
Shah also chronicles how Green contacted the paper's editor in a failed effort to stop the stories and unsuccessfully threatened to contact Rupert Murdoch directly to call a halt. He bombarded Shah and business editor O'Connell with calls claiming their articles would 'sink BHS' and Sir Philip even objected when he discovered the paper was to focus on Chappell's lavish lifestyle after taking over BHS, including his purchase of a new Range Rover and a Swan 42 racing yacht. 'What do you expect him to do, ride a bike to work?', Green bellowed, 'I'm gonna come round there and smack you in the f*****g mouth!'
Another threatening letter from Sir Philip's lawyers arrived defending Chappell, which the paper refused to be cowed by.
Interestingly, however, reports Shah, journalists from rival papers 'expressed amazement that I was being allowed to take on Green. One told me,' There's no way my editor will let me print it, so you may as well have it', he shrugged'.
Shah also recounts how, as the BHS pensions crisis developed, he received a tip-off that Sir Philip was to take delivery of a £100m super yacht-his third. Shah called Green to say that, although ordered 4 years earlier, it gave the impression of 'grotesque extravagance' in the light of BHS's struggle for survival and its pension black hole crisis. Sir Philip's growled response, reports Shah, 'Oh, please, F*** off!' His lawyers were called into action to try and stop the story, but the Sunday Times again ignored them and ran it under the headline: 'The £100m boat comes in--just as BHS pensions need bailing out'.
Shah's penultimate conversation with Sir Philip, he writes, came on the eve of BHS's collapse when he called its former owner to tell him the paper was about to run a story revealing administrators were about to be called in. The tycoon's response: 'Incorrect. If you want to call me a liar, come round to my office on Monday, call me a liar to my face and face the consequences. How's that, if you're such a big f****** boy? Because you will get thrown through the f****** window'.
As Shah's extraordinary article concludes: 'Overnight, the dam burst. Fleet Street, for so long cowed into submission, rose up and bit back hard against the bullying billionaire. I called Green one last time to ask if he felt any remorse. 'F*** off. Is that easy? F*** off', was the King of the High Street's response.
Since then, of course, Fleet Street has lost its inhibitions about taking on the tycoon with the public school background who preferred to adopt the accent and style of market stall trader. For example the Daily Mail, which has been full frontal on its assault on both Sir Philip and Lady Green and dubbed them 'the unacceptable faces of capitalism', ran a leader headed: 'Shabby and shameful plundering of BHS' in which it said the sorry saga 'confirms everyone's worst prejudices about the greed and irresponsibility which still flourishes in big business and the City'. It added: 'How could Sir Philip think it acceptable to sell a company of such size to a multiple bankrupt and chancer like Chappell?'
So how, you might ask, was Fleet Street--with a couple of honourable exceptions--so intimidated for so long on taking on Sir Philip over BHS, which so many business journalist knew was a disaster waiting to happen? Once again it reminds me of my old boss Robert Maxwell, who although far more more culpable than Sir Philip Green in any criminal sense, adopted the same four-letter word braggadocio verbal assault, backed by a rush to lawyers with dire threats and even injunctions granted whenever his business methods and morality were questioned.
And Mirror Group owner Maxwell, labelled the 'dud Czech, even before he plunged off the deck of his own super yacht (he only boasted one compared to Sir Philip's three), all too often succeeded in intimidating the rest of the media into a shameful silence. He managed to achieve the same with too many political figures he either cultivated assiduously or threatened brazenly and who chose to ignore what they knew about his morally and legally corrupt practices.
Whatever the final outcome of the several official inquiries now being launched into Sir Philip and Lady Green, the fate of BHS and its huge pension 'black hole' and the conduct of the disgraced, discredited bankrupt playboy who was allowed to acquire it for a quid, it's a saga that will also register as a major 'Street of Shame' ledger in the history of Fleet Street's less than finest hours.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, PR adviser, and former editor of the Sunday Mirror and deputy editor of the Daily Mirror