The Index »

  • Budget 2012: What have we learned? A 20-point guide

    December 6, 2011 @ 7:15 pm | by Laura Slattery

     1. Budget 2012 is the Twilight: Breaking Dawn of budgets: gruesome set-pieces, unconvincing delivery of lines and should never have been split into two parts.

     2. With no careers available to speak of, there is apparently no need for career guidance counsellors anymore. Hundreds of education posts have been chopped.

     3. Yes, Ryanair is important to the economy, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan acknowledged in a very rare concession to the negotiating hand of Michael O’Leary.

    4. The fuel season now officially lasts 26 and not 32 weeks, says the Government, whose faith in the mildness of September and April will surely come back to haunt them, and us.

    5.  Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin’s speech was a touch generic – in that he declared that a switch to cheaper generic drugs would save us millions.

    6. Post-speech press conferences will be scheduled later next year, so that ministers who depart the Dáil to attend them are not taunted by the Opposition for knocking off early.

    7. It would not be good if one of Ireland’s expat billionaires were to suddenly go rogue and attack the mother country, as the number of army brigades is set to be cut from three to two.

     8. “Many young men and women now see their future in farming,” according to Noonan – a self-sufficiency that could come in handy when Western civilisation implodes.

     9. Cash fares are dead. Public transport fares will increase next year, but passengers who buy the pre-paid integrated Leap card will, despite the name, be cushioned from most of the jump.

    10.  Private health insurance = rich man’s luxury. The VHI warns its premiums will rise by a staggering 50 per cent as a result of changes to private beds in public hospitals.

    11. It’s no longer especially economical, if indeed it ever was, to have more than two children, as families with three or more kids take the hit on child benefit cuts.

    12. The back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance will no longer be paid to parents of two- and three-year-olds, on the grounds that they don’t go to school.

    13.  On the advice of Nama, upward-only rent reviews are here to stay – a case of “up UORRS” to retailers. It will save taxpayers money, partly because there will be fewer shops.

    14. Public sector spending will be subject to “evidence-based expenditure policy”, which is code for not throwing cash at useless, pointless things.

     15. Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald accused Labour of “sleeveen politics”. Slang.ie says “sleeveen” implies “slyness, untrustworthiness, and obviously slippery character”.

     16. Noonan enjoys caustic appraisal of the “mental arithmetic” skills of his critics, pausing during his speech to correct various Opposition assertions on the impact of the VAT hike.

    17. By 2014, single parents of children aged 7 will be deemed available for full-time work and if they can’t find affordable after-school childcare, then… well… er…

    18. Cheap supermarket booze is on notice, with the Government signalling that Ireland may follow in the footsteps of Scotland, which unveiled a minimum pricing bill last month.

    19. If only we’d taken fewer duvet days… “Absenteeism is a problem in both the public and private sectors in Ireland,” observed Noonan, to an uncommonly packed Dáil.

    20. “Difficult choices are never easy.” This was an actual sentence spoken in the Dáil on Monday by Taoiseach Enda Kenny. And who can argue with that?

  • Will recorded music be money for jam at EMI-devouring Universal?

    November 12, 2011 @ 9:00 am | by Laura Slattery

    The claim that record labels are pretty terrible at doing business has become a truism of the iTunes age as tired and old as a Saturday night line-up at Glastonbury. But to be fair to EMI, the debt-riddled British music group set to be split in two, it managed to survive 110 years before it found itself, four years ago, in the clutches of Guy Hands, the private equity boss who didn’t seem to like his musical toy very much and in February lost control of it to its bankers, Citigroup.

    EMI, which began life as The Gramophone Company in 1897, survived the First World War, when its gramophone factory was turned into a munitions plant. It survived the Depression (the 1930s one), when music sales plummeted like a stone. More recently, it survived Joss Stone. Credit where credit is due, or at least that’s what Citigroup must have wished when it was forced to write down £2.2 billion in EMI’s debt. Nothing lasts forever. EMI’s friendless failure reinforces the received wisdom that record labels simply can’t cope with the era of music piracy. But like Louis Walsh’s fondness for telling X Factor contestants that they’ve “got the whole package”, this is hollow cliché. It’s like bellowing the downbeat verse, then murmuring the upbeat chorus.

    Universal Music Group, owned by French media conglomerate Vivendi, yesterday fended off its rival Warner Music to buy the recorded music division of EMI from Citigroup. For a sum of £1.2 billion, Universal has not “got the whole package”, but the part that includes a roster of globally successful artists such as Coldplay, Katy Perry and, most importantly from a profit-spinning point of view, The Beatles. Sony, meanwhile, the third of the “big three” majors, has landed EMI’s publishing arm.

    The deal is so good for Universal – already the biggest recorded music company in the world – that it might, in fact, prove too good and fall at the regulatory hurdle. If so, Universal will have to dispense with the massive economies of scale that the EMI purchase would bring and make do with, say, yielding reams of cash from Lioness: Hidden Treasures, a collection of Amy Winehouse tracks cobbled together by its Island Records imprint for festive posthumous release.

    So how is the whole death-of-the-album thing progressing then? Not too well, in fact. The recorded music industry in 2011 is like the Kings of Leon’s “Sex on Fire” – it sucks people in despite its obvious awfulness and then it stubbornly refuses to die. Industry-wide, album sales, including digital downloads, are up 3 per cent this year, according to figures from the tracking system Nielsen SoundScan. A total of 255 million albums have been sold in the US so far this year, compared with 247 million this time last year – at which point, album sales had been running down 13 per cent on 2009. The figures suggest a bottom has been reached. The fact that the bottom sort-of coincided with the reign of “Sex on Fire” is merely, well, coincidental.

    The UK’s Official Charts Company last weekend announced that digital album sales in the UK had “smashed” their 2010 total. Now this, to me, didn’t initially sound like the kind of statistic that would set label executives trilling with delight – surely, with continued smartphone penetration and the retrenchment of the last-dog-standing in music retail (HMV, also a descendant of The Gramophone Company), digital album sales should have surpassed last year’s figure sometime before mid-November.

    But that was before I had considered the Brucie-bonus that is the strange waiting period between Christmas and New Year. For the last five years, the biggest week for digital album sales has been the final week of the year, when not only do consumers use up the digital music gift vouchers slipped into their stockings, but they also have new iPhones, iPods, tablets and laptops to send them hurtling to the iTunes store. Clicking the “buy now” button sure passes the time when you’re watching Jools Holland pretend it’s New Year’s Eve on New Year’s Eve.

    Geoff Taylor, chief executive of British music industry body the BPI, believes the final week of 2011 may see the 1 million weekly sales barrier for digital albums broken for the first time. Even if it transpires that everyone already has the Adele album and no one’s much fussed about Lady Gaga anymore, it’s still likely that digital album sales in the UK will run in well ahead of last year’s total of 21.3 million copies. Already, they represent a 26.2 per cent share of total album sales, up from 17.5 per cent in 2010.

    Investors, too, are beginning to whistle a new and chirpier tune when it comes to the recorded music industry. In May, Sean Parker, Napster founder and former scourge of the record labels, declared that the labels’ recorded music assets were “dramatically undervalued”. Yesterday, Ben Rumley, an analyst at London firm Enders Analysis, told Bloomberg that “we might be getting close to the point where the decline, in the recorded side at least, is ending”.

    But not everyone agrees that the industry is going to manage a complete key change from piracy and frantic live touring to legal downloads and music-streaming subscriptions. Technology research firm Gartner said on Tuesday that although global online music revenues would rise 7 per cent this year to $6.3 billion, this would not offset the speedy decline of sales of physical CDs. By 2015, Gartner forecasts that online music spending will rise to $7.7 billion, up from $5.9 billion in 2010. In the same period, it predicts that spending on physical CDs will decline from $15 billion to $10 billion.

    The maths still leave big numbers in the kitty, though I’m romantic enough to hope that there’s another factor that might yet boost music spending beyond all expectations, and change the world while it’s at it: It’s the crazy idea that there’s some pulse-racing, politics-infused movement around the musical corner – some sound or voice of a kind not heard before that’s capable of drowning out the prevalent, pernicious nostalgia of 20th century band reunions, the dullness and hesitancy fast enveloping the Mercury genre and the creative bankruptcy of 90 per cent of porn-pop. The headlines today focus on Universal’s pledge to keep EMI’s iconic Abbey Road studios intact “as a symbol of the creative community”. But if Universal and fellow majors Sony and Warner don’t look to the future as well as the past, then they’ll be the ones left floundering to the strains of Sex on bloody Fire when the next wave hits.

  • Taxi to Spaceport America, launchpad for suborbital flights of fancy

    October 21, 2011 @ 8:55 am | by Laura Slattery

    Performers hang from wires on the facade of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space terminal at Spaceport America near Las Cruces, New Mexico. The runway, the WhiteKnight Two and SpaceShip Two are shown in reflections on the glass. Photo: Reuters/Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic.

    You’re supposed to grow out of wanting to go into space, but if anything, my desire to see this blue sky from above has only increased with age. Notwithstanding a conspiracy theorist-nurturing lack of lunar landings in recent decades, the possibility of going off-planet now seems within closer reach. You used to have to be a super-fit, super-impassive, super-American specimen in order to venture off the Earth; now you just have to be super-rich or in close proximity to someone who is. Even in these gloomy times, the latter seems the more likely prospect: The genetic lottery is no longer open for play, but I might one day win EuroMillions and cultivate close personal relationships with members of the Branson family.

    Earlier this week, Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic friends held a modest dedication ceremony for Spaceport America, the New Mexico base from which the era of commercial suborbital spaceflight will eventually launch, possibly as early as 2013. Its gleaming hangar is designed to house the mothership, WhiteKnight Two, and the actual people-carrier, SpaceShip Two (aka the VSS Enterprise). Tickets cost $200,000, which seems like a bargain when benchmarked against bubbly Irish house prices, but is still twice the annual salary of a Nasa astronaut – should they want to take a busman’s holiday.

    Deposits “start from $20,000“, apparently, though any would-be passengers should probably read the small print that states how suborbital flights will rise up into space, but won’t actually complete a full orbit – or indeed do anything as exciting as slip off to the Delta Quadrant to chase renegade aliens. In essence, Virgin Galactic’s jumpsuited commercial astronauts will get to feel all weightless and floaty and superior and stuff, without having to spend much time contemplating the black depths of infinity.

    Spaceport America’s departures lounge promises to be spine-tingling, but arrivals will surely just be plain tense. What goes up, must come down, but doing so without burning up will be the trick. Branson and his children Sam and Holly will be among the first passengers though, which might prove something of an incentive to make sure all the nuts, bolts and freeze-dried ice-cream are correctly secured before take/lift-off. (Freeze-dried ice-cream, according to an episode of Blue Peter I saw sometime in the late 1980s, is special astronaut food. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all they eat.)

    Back when Pluto was still considered a planet, astronauts were remote, unflinching, patriotic veterans of Nasa training; sturdy and fearless. Now they mix freely in the Twittersphere and arm themselves with pepper spray to vanquish love rivals. Who hasn’t been there?

    Last year, “astronaut” made its debut appearance in a UK careers’ handbook, with the inclusion naturally dubbed “space: the final career frontier” by headline writers. But soon trips to the stars will be not just work, but pleasure. Wikipedia has a page with the title “list of spaceports“. Even though most of them seem designed purely to fire up more space debris, it’s still exciting. Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal and CEO of SpaceX, is frequently seen walking the corridors of Capitol Hill, lobbying the US government and occasionally muttering something about his plans for the human colonisation of Mars. Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic’s site boasts the words “book with your local accredited space agent”, and maps them.

    So my question is… How cold can it be, really?

  • In Page One Documentary, the Grey Lady Receives a Timely Makeover

    September 26, 2011 @ 8:30 am | by Laura Slattery

    If you’re a newspaper journalist who enjoys masochistically gorging on the “newspapers are dead, take me to the content farm” meme, then Page One, a documentary about The New York Times showing at the Irish Film Institute, is the movie for you. Or at least it was for me. I came away from it duly convinced by the democratic importance and sweeping professionalism of The New York Times, as I think is the intention. As a tribute I’ve replicated in this post’s title the newspaper’s unique stylistic fondness for starting a headline with a prepositional phrase.

    It’s not that I didn’t absorb the very real sense of insecurity and self-doubt that’s clearly got a guest pass for the New York Times Building. As advertising plummets and the culture of free triumphs, the editorial axe swings. A veteran section editor decides to take voluntary redundancy rather than try to “push my luck for another five years”. The deputy obituaries editor departs in the knowledge that her job title is on the endangered species list. Colleagues clap and cry.

    But much of Page One seemed designed to “move the story on” from the paper’s recent woes. So, as a corrective to the scandalous saga of Judith Miller’s uncritically WMD-tastic, administration-cheerleading war reports, there’s a segment where a series of editors forensically rubbish an NBC news broadcast proclaiming the US military’s exit from Iraq, deriding it as fake narrative closure by the network.

    What of the diluted authority of “analogue newspapers” in a digital world? One of the talking heads notes that in the YouTube age, someone like Wikileaks founder Julian Assange doesn’t need The New York Times the same way that Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Vietnam war-era Pentagon Papers, needed The New York Times. Ultimately, however, it’s decided that the Wikileaks documents gained credibility by virtue of its “vetting” and publication by established journalistic brands.

    The threat posed to public interest journalism by parasitic aggregators like Michael Wolff’s Newser and ethically-alternative media magnates like Sam Zell are cited, though both are effectively and amusingly taken down in one way or another by the film’s blunt hero, David Carr, a former cocaine addict turned media columnist. (If you’ve seen the film, you can read Carr’s page-one story on the “bankrupt culture” of Sam Zell’s Tribune Company here.) Carr has a short fuse – “I don’t do corporate portraiture,” he tells a multimedia company making a pitch about how great they are.

    But the line that had me wide-eyed was where he informs his editor that he is going to take “another” two weeks to research the Tribune article, followed by a further week to write the piece, and only then would he have something to show him. Three weeks plus added time is an ice age in the average byline-hungry, resource-starved newspaper. Any minute now, I thought, this being the US media, they’re going to start talking about the mysterious creatures known as “fact checkers”. Or maybe someone is going to be shown hot-footing it down to a crime scene in order to conduct a parallel investigation that eventually trumps the inferior police one. Such is the way with journalism in the movies, even when they’re fretting about the end times. The New York Times may be committing fewer resources to journalism than it once was, but its investment is still way ahead of most of the rest.

    Amazingly, however, even when someone comes along and makes a documentary as flattering as this one, the newspaper is still old-school enough to be wilfully non-commercial about it. Apparently mindful of potential “conflicts”, the paper hired somebody outside the company to review it on its movie pages. Sadly, the reviewer slammed the documentary as “a mess”, telling the loyal New York Times‘ readership to go see His Girl Friday again instead. Oh well.

  • Bunga bunga cha cha cha: the BBC vs Silvio Berlusconi

    September 21, 2011 @ 8:00 am | by Laura Slattery

    “Standard & Poor’s declassa l’Italia,” read the headline for Italian daily Il Tempo, but for diplomacy-eschewing Silvio Berlusconi, there’s been even more bad news this week. He’s being sued by the BBC for making what The Daily Mail has dubbed a “porno” version of Strictly Come Dancing. (I’ve not seen it myself.) The Berlusconi-owned broadcaster Mediaset stands accused of abusing the copyright of BBC Worldwide’s prized format export, in the process of which it has replaced its nudge-nudge-wink-wink subtext with a level of obvious bunga-bunga-ness that would make a Pussycat Doll blush, never mind Head Judge Len.

    Presumably, this is so the copycat show, Baila!, lives up to the standards of Berlusconi’s notorious sex parties, where the dancing was apparently of the pole and not the Paso Doble variety – though, funnily enough, when it came to matching up partners, similar care and attention was paid to the issue of compatible heights. Italy’s own Vincent Simone slipping a few cheeky ganchos into an Argentine tango with Edwina Currie just isn’t the kind of thing that cuts it for screen sizzle on Mediaset’s Canale 5 station. Who’d have thought?

    BBC Worldwide licensed the Italian rights to Dancing with the Stars (as it’s known internationally) to the public broadcaster Rai six years ago as part of its multimillion-earning cunning plan to teach the world how to turn learning the quickstep into a “journey”. Sold to 35 countries, it’s one of the most successful reality television formats in the tear-splattered history of reality television. Now Rai’s lawyers are, ahem, arm in arm with BBC Worldwide in its bid to slap down the alleged copyright infringement by Mediaset.

    The Berlusconi company, meanwhile, says that Baila! is based on an entirely different South American format called Bailando Por Un Sueno or Dancing for a Dream, created by Televisa Mexico. A version of this show broadcast in Argentina featured a topless model simulating sex during one of the dances – or so I’ve read. (I’ve not seen it myself.) It really does sound like it’s just one octogenarian, a wardrobe rail of sparkly body stockings and any number of Craig Revel-Horwood panto-snarls away from the real deal.

    In any case, I’m still too traumatised by that footage of Berlusconi and the traffic warden to even contemplate what his broadcasting executives might do with the rumba, so more power to the BBC and Rai. By rights, however, the Rome court with which they’ve lodged legal papers should be aware that there is really only one fair way to settle this dispute – a dance-off between Silvio and David Cameron. With Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, Barack Obama – and Arlene Phillips – as the judges, obviously.

  • It’s not you, it’s Suzuki… how a motor marriage with Volkswagen reached break-up point

    September 12, 2011 @ 7:44 pm | by Laura Slattery

    Corporate alliances, if the soured partnership between Suzuki and Volkswagen is anything to go by, are just like human relationships – complex, tortured and rife with passive-aggressive barbs that can be helpfully delivered by third parties (in this case, the media).

    Suzuki chairman Osamu Suzuki certainly feels that way: “We should just have a simple break up with a smile and say we weren’t meant for each other,” he said today of his company’s marriage to VW.

    The Japanese vehicle manufacturer and the German carmaker’s partnership agreement first frosted over back in March, when VW made the rash claim in its annual report that it had the power to “significantly influence financial and operating policy decisions” at Suzuki, which it described as an “associate”. This didn’t go down well with Suzuki, which had, seemingly, not yet committed to quite such an intimate and controlling a relationship.

    Not long afterwards, Suzuki took up with a familiar acquaintance, Fiat, deciding to buy diesel engines from the Italian carmaker, with which it had previously done some business. In August, the Suzuki chairman said the company “sees no reason why Volkswagen would be upset” by its purchase of engines from Fiat.

    But VW took Suzuki’s flirtation with its old flame personally. Message received, it said in July that it was placing the partnership “under review”. Suzuki executives responded by noting to news wire Bloomberg that a successful relationship depends on an understanding that the two companies are equal partners. In other words, it wanted some R-E-S-P-E-C-T. It was also heard smarting that VW “keeps talking to the media, but not to us directly”.

    VW is now insisting that the Japanese firm violated the terms of their partnership. Bravely, it gave Suzuki an ultimatum - granting it “several weeks” to remedy the alleged infringement, or else. Suzuki has replied by saying if that’s how VW feels about it, then maybe VW should sell the 20 per cent stake it holds in Suzuki.

    Suzuki chairman Osamu Suzuki at a news conference in Tokyo, September 12th. Photo: Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon

    It’s probably too late for both parties to sit down and consider what brought them together in the first place. The VW-Suzuki partnership was always going to be a marriage of opposites. Suzuki’s dowry was its leading position in India, while VW’s attractions lay in its global reach as the third’s biggest carmaker. United, they were supposed to take the hybrid and electric car markets by storm. But that was 2009. Two years later, and no joint projects have begun.

    It’s entirely possible that VW and Suzuki may yet turn out to be the motor industry’s equivalent of one of those couples who fight constantly, only to confound divorce-forecasting sceptics by renewing their vows instead. But right now, it seems the early flush of excitement has worn off, permanently. The two companies are discovering that they have little in common and probably never really did.

  • Aer Lingus lifts its nose, advertises for interns

    August 31, 2011 @ 1:53 pm | by Laura Slattery

    With no volcano-related airspace closures to contend with, Aer Lingus has enjoyed a strong second quarter to the year. Passenger numbers are up 8.3 per cent compared to the same period last year, the amount of cash earned per passenger increased 6.6 per cent to €113.13 and revenue has climbed 14 per cent to €351 million.

    These are reassuring numbers for the airline, which has, of yet, failed to invent time travel, though it is currently advertising for more assistants than Doctor Who.

    In common with a number of major employers, Aer Lingus has alighted upon a new way to get work done on the cheap: the JobBridge internship scheme. Its website is currently advertising 19 internships, with titles including IT project assistant; revenue evaluation assistant; and most eye-catchingly of all, air safety assistant.

    Some 14 of the 19 advertised positions are for nine months, the other five for six months. And 12 of them specify a requirement for degree-level qualifications in fields such as accountancy, IT and business.

    To recap the terms of the JobBridge scheme again, the Government, via taxpayers, will throw in €50 per week pocket money on top of dole entitlements, and, er, that’s it. Crucially, the interns are not supposed to be doing work that the company would otherwise have to hire someone to perform at a proper wage – so, on that basis, I guess that air safety assistant position isn’t really necessary at all.

    According to interim accounts published this morning, Aer Lingus’s losses in the first half of 2011 were higher than they were in 2010, with the airline citing the impact of industrial disputes. But this is still a company happy to declare that it is “positive” about its trading prospects for the rest of the year, as well as talk up, for the benefit of shareholders, its success in whittling down operating costs. Staff costs, which represent a fifth of its operating costs, fell 6 per cent in the first half, as the airline cut wages and headcount.

    One can only assume – given how optimistic chief executive Christoph Mueller is about the outlook for the airline – that he will at least consider adding this team of interns to the payroll at the end of the six- or nine month-period of paying them nothing.

    This is not the same company that during the boom would hire cabin crew for nine months, terminate their contracts en masse, and then prevent them from applying for cabin crew positions advertised soon after they were let go. Is it?

  • Dark forces in the departure lounge: a seven-point guide to resignation

    July 22, 2011 @ 8:30 am | by Laura Slattery

    With institutional corruption in the British media / police / parliament becoming increasingly difficult to veil in shabby apologia, the personnel involved are falling over each other to fall on their sword – well it’s better than falling into custody. Rebekah Brooks, Les Hinton, Sir Paul Stephenson, John Yates… all of them have clocked out with varying degrees of haste, style and dignity. But getting your resignation right is about more than securing a golden goodbye sealed with a loving confidentiality clause.

    You can resign to spend more time with your family, like a 1990s Tory minister, or to spend less time with your family, like David Miliband. You can be the first out of a revolving door, like Siobhán Donaghy, the first popstar to claim the title “ex-Sugababe”. You can cite principles, like crisp salesman Gary Lineker, who quit his column at the Mail on Sunday after it secretly recorded the head of the FA – only to sign up for the, er, News of the World instead.

    You can declare that there are “dark forces” at work, like one of 2011′s leading sexists, the ex-Sky Sports presenter Richard Keys. Or you can attempt a temporary blaze of glory like Steven Slater, the Jet Blue air steward who upon landing announced his resignation via the plane intercom, grabbed a couple of beers from the trolley and activated the emergency inflatable slide – only to later change his mind about wanting to quit.

    For those who have the opportunity to figure out the best way to shuffle off the official payroll, there’s a menu of eclectic exit strategies to choose from:

    1. A distraction, not a disgrace.

    Classic PR manoeuvre: Attribute your resignation not to your alleged mistake/offence, but to the public outcry about that mistake/offence, then follow this up with a bold claim to selflessness. In a spot of medal-winning rationale, Met commissioner Stephenson felt it best to go now rather than get stuck into the security preparation for the London 2012 Olympics with a Murdoch-shaped cloud hanging over him – that just wouldn’t be fair to Londoners. Similarly, Anthony Weiner, the former US Representative obliged to resign after sending what we will politely call a graphic tweet, regretted that “the distraction” had made it impossible to continue “to fight for the middle class and those struggling to make it”. He was abandoning the cause, he said, “so my colleagues can get back to work”.

    2. Stylistic flourish 101

    While the Twitter monster has doubtless not yet claimed its last scalp from office, a tweet can also be the medium by which you announce your sacking departure. Jonathan Schwartz, the chief executive of Sun Microsystems edged out last year when Oracle bought Sun, decided to merge social media platform with historic cultural artform when he tweeted his resignation with a haiku. “Today’s my last day at Sun. I’ll miss it. Seems only fitting to end on a #haiku. Financial crisis/Stalled too many customers/CEO no more.” The poetry must have sapped his inspiration, however, as @openjonathan hasn’t tweeted in quite some time.

    3. Stylistic flourish (Honours)

    It’s always a good idea if you can combine your resignation letter with a de facto application for your next career. This, essentially, is what ex-Daily Star reporter Richard Peppiatt did when he decided he’d had enough of reporting fantasy as news. “I see a cascade of shit pirouetting from your penthouse office, caking each layer of management, splattering all in between,” he wrote to proprietor Richard Desmond. Nice. If you’re a man who wants to write for a living, rather than spend your days impersonating Muslim women for the sake of an inflammatory headline, it’s a smart move to make sure everyone knows you can master such basics as a) rational argument, b) sentence rhythm, c) dry, cutting humour and d) the personal touch. Peppiatt’s letter was published by more than one “quality” newspaper and he is now found frequenting television studios providing an insider’s commentary on all things dodgily tabloid – thanks to News International, he is a pundit much in demand.

    Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks appears before a parliamentary committee on phone hacking on Tuesday. But was it her tardy resignation that did the most PR damage? Photo: REUTERS/Parbul TV

    4. Scorched earth policy

    Sarcasm and contempt are cheap if you’re so rich you never have to pretend to work again. Hedge fund trader Andrew Lahde made an 866 per cent return in 2007 by betting that the US subprime market would collapse. His farewell open letter on quitting the industry in 2008 was withering about “the low hanging fruit, i.e. idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA”. They were “there for the taking”, he said. “These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government. All of this behaviour… only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God bless America.”

    5. Exit, pursued by Ant and Dec

    With so many household villains seeking opportunities for redemption, the contestant wishlist of the producers of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here must be getting longer by the day – and if you think it’s unlikely that, say, an ex-head of the Metropolitan police would venture into the jungle in order to be dowsed in kangaroo saliva, then consider that former deputy assistant commissioner of the Met, Brian Paddick, did almost exactly that three years ago. Paddick, whose resignation from the Met falls into the “jumped after being pushed” category, survived the Queensland cameras with minimum humiliation and was last seen making a return to the more serious endeavour of being a London mayoral candidate for the Liberal Democrats.

    6. Leverage your experience

    As Bank of Ireland governor, Richard Burrows must have learned a thing or two about toxic industries. So upon leaving the bank in 2009, what better career move than to take up residency as chairman of British American Tobacco? Former Halifax Bank of Scotland chief executive Andy Hornby swapped mortgages for moisturisers when he joined Boots, only to resign from that job less than two years later, saying he needed a break. This week, he was appointed the boss of bookmakers Coral, making him the ultimate casino banker. In a corporate culture where the former head of risk management at Lehman Brothers can get a job as treasurer of the World Bank, it’s hard to sneer whenever someone whose career seems in the toilet talks about “pursuing new opportunities” round the other side of the U-bend. The chances are they will. 

    7. Why not get your life back?

    After the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, BP chief executive Tony Hayward’s entire lexicon, his entire demeanour, seemed like one big long resignation monologue staged to attract maximum levels of transatlantic opprobrium. The man dubbed “Big Oil’s Mr Bean” notoriously declared he would “like his life back” not long after the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 workers. The leak from its rig was still pumping thick black crude oil into the gulf at a rate of up to 60,000 barrels a day when Hayward decided to spend a day watching his yacht compete in an Isle of Wight boat race. His inevitable resignation statement contained a peerless mea non-culpa: “I will always feel a deep responsibility, regardless of where blame is ultimately found to lie.”

  • What does the future hold for Superquinn?

    July 19, 2011 @ 11:39 am | by Laura Slattery

    The tills have rung for Superquinn, sold to one of its main rivals, Musgrave Group, after the chain was placed in receivership last night. That the company, founded in Dundalk by Feargal Quinn in 1960, has secured a buyer is undeniably positive for both its 2,800 employees and the Irish grocery market alike, especially as Musgrave chief executive Chris Martin cited comforting phrases like “excited by this opportunity” and “supports our growth agenda”.

    The Superquinn bakery (still glazes ahead of its competitors) and Superquinn sausages (coveted by generations of emigrants) will remain on sale for now.

    But many questions remain. How will the Competition Authority assess the transaction? If the deal goes ahead, Musgrave, which owns Centra and Supervalu, will become the biggest retail group in the country, overtaking Tesco. Musgrave has its strongest presence in Munster, while 16 of Superquinn’s 24 stores are in Dublin. This geographical spread may be enough to assure the authority, and in any case, it will be under severe pressure to prevent retail jobs falling by the wayside.

    An outside entrant may have brought more price competition to the market as a whole, but then Superquinn is not Dunnes Stores – it has traditionally branded itself as upmarket, with the prices to match. Competing on price rather than product would change the essence of the brand. Indeed, recent economic times have seen it attempt to chase value-conscious customers in a manner that has perhaps muddied perceptions of its core offering. With its market share slipping to just 6 per cent, it probably felt it didn’t have much choice.

    Which way will Musgrave push the company? Can Ireland afford an indigenous Waitrose-type chain, especially with Dublin already well-served by Marks & Spencer and a smattering of quality standalones? The Superquinn name will be retained, but will the stores be developed by Musgraves into quasi-SuperCentras? What does Musgrave mean exactly when it says it will use “its significant brand expertise to develop the Superquinn business by investing in the stores and bringing value to the Superquinn shopper”?

    One possible solution to the gap between Superquinn’s old brand identity and the state of the economy would be to rebrand those stores that are located in struggling areas as Supervalus, but keep the Superquinn name above stores located in areas where disposable incomes have held up.

    For Irish grocery suppliers, the deal means a further concentration of retailer power and the risk of missed payments for goods already supplied. But it could be worse. Musgraves has committed in its statement this morning “to providing existing Superquinn suppliers with the opportunity to continue to supply Superquinn stores”. Contracts may be renegotiated. But an overseas buyer looking to scale up by expanding in Ireland could have decimated the supplier base altogether.

    How much has Musgrave paid the receivers? The only thing we know for sure is that it will be significantly less than the €450 million that Select Retail Holdings, a group backed by property developers, reportedly paid Senator Quinn and his family for the chain in 2005. It is this debt that prompted the receivership, rather than trading difficulties, though trade has been going in reverse of late. As a private company, Superquinn did not disclose its sales or profit figures – the group that it is set to become a part of does, however, and made a pretax profit of €72 million on sales of €4.4 billion last year.

    Musgrave, which managed to increase its profits by 3 per cent in 2010 despite a 3 per cent drop in sales, includes “not being greedy” in its list of corporate values. Customers, suppliers and staff of Superquinn will soon find out if this statement holds true.

  • Corporate dress codes are back in fashion – but so is rebelling against them

    July 12, 2011 @ 8:30 am | by Laura Slattery

    Are we back in the 1950s? Stories about female employees expected to conform to arduous standards of self-presentation are rattling around the news schedules like misplaced hairpins, betraying the perfect image – of the companies, that is, not the women themselves. Earlier this month, we heard the story of Melanie Stark, who worked in the HMV outlet in Harrods until it was made clear to her by the department store that her unmade face did not satisfy the store’s requirement for full make-up.

    This week, we have the case of Sandra Rawline, suing for discrimination after she was fired from a Texan firm allegedly for refusing to dye her grey hair to comply with its “upscale image”. The firm, Capital Title, flatly denies the claim. But if the allegation is true, then Capital Title’s concept of corporate presentation is not only discriminatory but also behind the curve. This is a month, after all, when Christine Lagarde has ascended to the position of head of the International Monetary Fund sporting a silvery crop that no right-seeing person could describe as anything other than a visual enhancement of her status.

    IMF managing director Christine Lagarde. Photo: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque.

    Corporate dress codes extend to men, too, of course, but – as with the much-mocked and now scrapped 44-page dress code of Swiss bank UBS – their instructions to women often seem to involve specifications that are either creepier (UBS told its female employees what colour underwear was acceptable), more time-consuming (The Guardian beauty writer Sali Hughes calculated Harrods’ make-up instructions to female staff is a 45-minute job) or simply more expensive to follow (though admittedly UBS did tell male employees to get a professional in to iron their shirts).

    Reading feminist objections to Harrods, UBS et al is an exercise in déjà vu. It’s been over two decades since third wave feminists declared women could wear high heels, mascara and underwear-as-outerwear and still confidently call themselves good feminists – because it was campaigning for equal pay, fracturing the glass ceiling and securing the option to sidestep pension-free domestic slavery that counted, not how much you chose to embrace or rebel against the beauty industry.

    Assailed by years of what Ariel Levy dubbed raunch culture, postfeminists like Natasha Walter later revised their earlier positions and said, yes, there was something to fight against here too – women weren’t controlling their image, their image was controlling them. For if employers are going to treat female staff like they’re 1950s housewives who just happen to be on secondment to the workplace, then the old arguments of rebellion are going to have to be dragged out for a revival, too. Women like Stark, Rawline and the “slutwalk” protesters all, in different ways, want the same thing: the right to choose how they appear now, without having to give testimony later.

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