While most select committee debates happen under the radar, some performances at select committees can draw the attention of the media. On occasion, this can damage, or even further damage, the reputation of business leaders. Below are some examples of when this has happened.
2016: Matt Brittin – Google Europe President
In February 2016, Google’s Europe President appeared in front of the Public Accounts Committee following the agreement that was made between the Treasury and Google that they would back a mere £130m in back taxes.
Mr Brittin’s performance hit the news after he was unable to disclose how much he was paid, saying: “I’ll happily disclose that if it’s a relevant matter for the committee,” and that he did not have his salary calculations to hand. The Committee Chair, Meg Hillier MP, demanded the figure in order to emphasise the gap between executives and ordinary members of the public filling in their tax returns.
Mr Brittin not being able to disclose his own salary made a headline for multiple news outlets including The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Daily Mail.
The lesson from this story is to ensure you are fully prepared for your appearance. Knowing the basic facts and figures about your organisation and the issue for which you are appearing is not always enough.
2015: Camila Batmanghelidjh – Chief Executive of the Kids Company
Following the high-profile collapse of Kids Company, Chief Executive Camila Batmanghelidjh and Chair Alan Yentob appeared in front of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to face a grilling on the charity’s demise.
Camila’s performance was heavily criticised, even by Mr Yentob who said: “This [hearing] was not her forte. This whole ordeal has been very stressful on Camila and I’m more concerned about her.”
Camila’s performance was so woeful that it drew criticism including accusing her of employing “a non-stop spiel of psychobabble”, and a “torrent of verbal ectoplasm” rather than answering the questions.
2011: The Murdochs – Phone Hacking Scandal
In the midst of the phone hacking scandal in 2011, executive chairman of News International James Murdoch and his father Rupert appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.
James’ performance hit the news not because of his inadequate performance, but because Tom Watson MP (current Deputy Leader of the Labour Party) likened James to a mafia boss, which subsequently made the headlines. Showing that even if you do an acceptable job, in front of a bloodthirsty set of MPs, being kept out of the spotlight is never guaranteed.
This story followed an appearance by him and his father in front of the same committee earlier that year when an activist attempted to hit Rupert him in the face with a paper plate covered in shaving foam. Another example of when your appearance in the news for your performance at a select committee was slightly out of your control.
2007: British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association (BVCA)
On the eve of the banking crisis in June 2007, prominent British representatives of the private equity industry were put in front of the Treasury Select Committee, following criticisms that private equity bosses were paying “less tax than a cleaning lady”. They were called to be grilled over issues including their low rate of tax, the opaque environment in which they operate and that they cause job losses while enriching themselves.
Following the poor performance of the BVCA at the select committee enquiry, the head of the association, Peter Linthwaite, quit his post.
Many lessons can be learned from these examples. The first is to ensure you are fully prepared for your appearance. Knowing just the basic facts and figures about your organisation and the issue for which you are appearing is not always enough. You must ensure you know all the necessary information like the back of your hand. Another lesson is that even if you do perform well, this can be drowned out by the questions statements from vicious MPs desperate to drag your name into the mud. If the subject matter around which you are appearing has already drawn large amounts of negative media attention, you can safely assume one select committee appearance is not going to change public opinion. One way or other select committees should be approached with extreme caution and there is no substitute for meticulous preparation and a realistic dress-rehearsal before the main event – political experts like those at PLMR can provide this valuable input.