What the Financial Times needs to do next

31 Jan 2018  |  Raymond Snoddy 
What the Financial Times needs to do next

It would be sad if the FT regards its Presidents Club investigation as a lucky punt that came off and that now it’s time to return to respectable normality, writes Raymond Snoddy

Confession time. On the back of the bathroom door hangs a relatively white, still fluffy dressing gown of the sort that appears as part of the service in the best hotels.

This one is a little special because it has embroidered in gold thread the newly explosive words: Presidents Club.

Should it be treasured as a curious artefact from another time - or cut into tiny pieces because of what it now represents?

Even at the time it seemed a rather odd item to put in a goody bag at the end of a black-tie charity dinner, but if there was a tacky symbolism involved it went unnoticed at the time.

It was so long ago that Michael Green was still chairman of Carlton Communications and the invited FT hack - as opposed to FT undercover reporter - was completely oblivious to any shenanigans, if indeed there were any in those far off days.

Over the years there may have been a lot of mission creep in the evolution of The Presidents Club in the direction of hostesses in black dresses with contractually matching underwear.

Apart from the five-star dressing gowns, the evening at the Dorchester was remarkable for the endless flow of champagne, the important City types walking about and the need, as a poverty-stricken guest, to avoid taking part in the drink-fuelled auction by mistake.

The Presidents Club affair is an important signifier, or is it sign, as semiologists would say, of an important moment of change.

The organisers had clearly been paying little attention to the professional fate of the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey and the rapid march of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Then suddenly, after more than 30 years, the game was up, and anyway who ever were The Presidents.

But it is still remarkable that it was the Financial Times that should go undercover, with no tradition of doing so, to expose disgusting, unacceptable behaviour among some sections of a very upmarket City audience.

It is difficult to imagine any previous editor of the FT, other than the current incumbent Lionel Barber, sanctioning such an operation.

It would have been very difficult indeed to persuade the shy but splendid Sir Geoffrey Owen of the wisdom, or relevance, of such a journalistic enterprise.

Even now it has been a double-edged sword with some FT readers highly critical of the coverage.

Was sleaze, and maybe even Sex in the City, really an FT story? Shouldn’t the FT be concentrating on the Carillion scandal and preferably sending reporters undercover into such troubled companies, without the little black dress, before the insolvency people arrive?

The last time there was such a rush of blood to the head at the FT was in 1997 when the paper of capitalism endorsed Tony Blair and Labour - and quite a few toys were thrown out of readers’ prams on that occasion too.

The Financial Times was absolutely right to send in its tax specialist, the wonderfully named Madison Marriage, to expose the current activities of The Presidents Club - presumably with prior knowledge of what she was likely to find.

After all, the FT was not exposing a darts match but an event teeming with its readers who make their fine livings in business, finance and property.

It has been the most viewed story in the history of the FT and the impact has been extraordinary all the way from Westminster to Davos and back and will change how City titans behave in future, at least at public events.

It is a nudge for all concerned, greatly in the right direction.

Surely journalist awards will follow.

Yet there are implications that will require further thought.

It would be sad if the FT regards this as a lucky punt that came off and that now it’s time to return to respectable normality.

The FT should be deploying some of its still formidable journalistic resources in the direction of more sustained investigative reporting campaigns - concentrating this time on the wider ills of society and not just the business community.

There has been collateral damage as a result of the FT’s entirely legitimate campaign of the little black dresses, the loss of an organisation that has raised more than £20 million over the years for worthy charities.

The FT should now step up to the plate and organise next year’s “Presidents Club” - the Financial Times Fifty-Fifty Charity Dinner for the causes that will now lose out as a result of the undercover operation.

The Fifty-Fifty would of course refer to the gender of the attendees as indeed those who tend the table, with two top speakers, male and female.

Historians Simon Schama and Mary Beard would be fun, but of course you could invite Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn or a couple of City worthies.

As for the charities handing their money back, they should resist the temptation of joining the knee-jerk world of instant responses to the latest social media storm.

The fluffy dressing gown is staying where it is, and for all the disgusting nature of the hands up skirts at the Presidents Club dinner sick children at Great Ormond Street hospital should always take precedent over the behaviour of a few bad City slickers.

The money might be slightly soiled but we are not talking about laundered drug money here. Get real Great Ormond Street.

There are other things to be done apart from reforming the behaviour of alpha males on a disgraceful night out.

Alongside FT coverage of the “Presidents Club Scandal” in the FT Weekend there was a single column devoted to the “outcry” over the pay gender gap at the BBC.

Now there is a new campaigning opportunity for the FT - forget hands on bums for now and push for gender equality in pay and everything else, not just in the BBC but throughout the City and indeed the rest of society.

And as for The Presidents Club, you should know you should never trust property wide boys who don’t know what an apostrophe is or even where it should be placed.

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