Sunday, 15 April 2007

Business leaders vs politicians

It's interesting to note the tone of some reactions to shareholder opposition to Lord Browne's pay package. It raises some questions about media attitudes to business leaders. Anthony Hilton's commentary in the Evening Standard is fairly typical of the sort of thing I'm thinking about:

This country has a strange way of showing it believes its future depends on getting the right people to run its great business. Lord Browne, the chief executive of BP, was forced yesterday to endure his last annual meeting of the oil giant against a backdrop of carping criticism about the terms of his retirement package from the company -- one which was said by the critics to be unreasonably generous.

This surely gives all the wrong signals. The Browne retirement package does indeed run into the millions and is way beyond the comprehension of normal people but that is not the point.

Whatever the problems the company has experienced in recent months, it has nevertheless been transformed under Browne's leadership and shareholders have an investment worth many billions of pounds more today that it was when he took over. Against the scale of his achievement the reward is minor.

The argument is pretty clear - Lord Browne has been such a great leader that criticism of his remuneration is rather unseemly. He's been so fantastic that not only should we grin and bear it, we should be grateful, and we put the company's recent failures in context. A further argument commonly made by the likes of Jeff Randall is that we don't celebrate our business leaders enough.

Fair enough, and I understand the perspective, but I do wonder if political journalists could get away with this kind of arguments. We don't celebrate our politicians enough, in fact we only ever carp at their mistakes, we should be grateful for the visionaries that lead us. What's more let's put their mistakes in in a bit of context. Doesn't sound right does it? So why do business media commentators think we should afford corporate leaders a level of deference they would never extend to politicians? Just look at the hatchet job Jeff Randall has done on Gordon Brown of the dividend tax credits issue.

I realise I'm a member of a pretty small club on the Left here but I do actually agree that we could do with more (and better) business coverage. What businesses do is important to all of us, and we should pay more attention to it. With the private sector continuing to take over functions which were once the preserve of the state, this becomes even more pressing.

However this also means that business commentary could become more critical, not less. If business leaders assume more political imnportance, they must also become more accountable.

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