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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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HS2’s big spenders need one of Desmond’s henchmen to slash ever-spiralling costs

Richard Desmond, who used to own the Daily Express, did not care much for the way television executives did business.


This stemmed from a time when he was setting up a TV channel to go with his celebrity magazine OK! As the bills began to come in, he was suspicious and angry at how much it was all costing.


Desmond’s own company, Northern and Shell, had a very simple business model. He was the boss and he had two joint managing directors: Stan Myerson, ad director (money in) and Martin Ellice, who controlled costs (money out).


It worked very efficiently, so when he got tired of the creative accounting of the TV crew – business meeting at this 5-star hotel, lunch at that Michelin-starred restaurant – he sent in Ellice to sort it out.


Desmond, even then, was a rich man but he didn’t get that way by allowing employees to take the mickey with his money.


Ellice, his ruthless enforcer, brought the exorbitant costs down – quickly and sharply. If fact, I was told he managed to get some of the misspent cash returned.


Trouble was, the TV execs had no skin in the game. It wasn’t their money. There was a culture of big spending in the industry and they were just doing what they had always done.


I was reminded of this when I read the Sunday Times’s Page One story of how bosses on the HS2 project allegedly ramped up the costs of the high-speed rail link between London and Manchester by billions of pounds – all of it public money.


The ST reports how whistleblowers were sacked after they tried to raise concerns that senior management instructed staff to keep cost estimates artificially low. HS2’s internal fraud unit is now investigating allegations that the company deliberately covered up cost overruns.


For years, says the paper, Parliament was not made aware of the true costs when it voted on laws that approved the construction. HS2 Ltd denies any wrongdoing.


Stephen Cresswell, one of the whistleblowers, claimed the company used a “classic playbook” on big, publicly funded construction projects. They would hold back real information on costs until after the Department for Transport had given approval to start work.


Cresswell claimed: “When notice to proceed had been given for the next phase of work, HS2 would go back to the department and say: ‘Oh, we’ve been really unlucky. Can we have some more money? It’s too late to cancel because we’ve dug the hole’.”


Meanwhile, the chief executive was raking in £676,000 a year and the chief financial officer £513,000. Forty-three employees were on more than £150,000 a year.


The section of the line from Birmingham to Manchester has been scrapped but independent analysts say the remaining section could end up costing £100 billion.


It is a truly shocking scandal and, if the allegations are true, it is a subtle and peculiarly British form of corruption.


And it shines a light into the murky corners of tax-funded projects which are not properly overseen. Where was the Martin Ellice figure striding into the boardroom and saying: “You’re fired, you’re fired and you’re fired and you are not getting a penny more – in fact, we want some back.”


You can’t expect civil servants to deal with this. They don’t have the know-how, or skin in the game. But you can expect politicians to keep a check on the rising costs. At least they stand to lose their jobs.


Was there a Government representative on the board? If so, what was he doing? If not, why not? This is a company, after all, that is solely funded from your taxes and mine, though it operates as a public limited company (and from the sound of things, as an unlimited bonanza for some).


And who drew up (and who signed) a contract that did not contain penalty clauses in the event that costs climbed ever higher for no discernible reason? It was a daft project from the start but those who run the country threw good money after bad and should be punished for it.


Margaret Thatcher used to have some business big-hitters behind her when she was Prime Minister. Does anyone seriously think that while we were allegedly being robbed blind, Lord (David) Young of Graffham, who made his fortune in property, construction and plant hire, would have sat quietly at the PM’s elbow. Or Michael Heseltine, who built a property empire and then a publishing one and later began the regeneration of Liverpool after the 1981 Toxteth riots?


These were men of action. We need such men again, instead of Oxford PPE graduates with zero experience of the real world.

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The Lawson clan gathered last week to celebrate the life of their patriarch, Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, who died aged 91.


They’re quite a family. Over-achievers doesn’t quite do it justice. Lord Lawson of Blaby had clever and ambitious children.


Nigella, his daughter, was there, of course, looking coquettish despite the underlying sadness she must have felt. She has made a fabulous career out of food writing and TV presenting.


Her brother Dominic is a columnist for the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times and for a decade until 2005 was Editor of the Sunday Telegraph and later Editor of the Spectator. He spoke in tribute to his father at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, along with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Lord Lamont of Lerwick.


I could go on, and if I were a reporter still, I would probably have to. Because once I had read The Times’s Page 14-15 spread on the service of remembrance, I turned to the Register where many more names, some of them illustrious, appeared under the heading: Among those present were…


Readers don’t realise that some poor chump must stand at the door of the church and take a note of all those arriving for the service. It is an onerous task on a par with subbing the weather or doing a door knock to tell a mother her son has been killed. God help you if you spell any names wrongly or miss anyone out.


The last time I saw someone doing this was at the memorial service for Ross Benson, formerly of this parish and latterly of the Daily Mail.


As I entered St Bride’s with, if I remember rightly, fellow Drone columnist Alan Frame, we were pounced on by two reporters from the Daily Telegraph. “Excuse me, who are you?” asked one of them, a young woman.


I told her and then, though she hadn’t asked, I spelt it out. Not that anyone would have given a monkey’s even if it had been spelt as Lord Drone, our sainted proprietor, sometimes spells it: Sodmire.


But the bigger the name, the bigger the ego and the more fragile too. Imagine if she had misspelt Dacre, who gave an address.


The reason I felt empathy for the young reporter was that I still remember doing the job myself a couple of times at memorial services for local worthies in the provinces. And how those trooping into the church treat you is an interesting guide to character.


Some are courteous, keen to see that their name gets into the paper correctly and preferably with their achievements and decorations listed afterwards.


Others think you should know who they are and they’re damned well not going to spell it out for you. These, of course, are the first ones to call the Editor and demand to know why their name was not on the list.


There is one more category, rare but interesting: the secret mourner, who slips in, perhaps by a side door, and takes a pew at the back, out of the eyeline of the deceased’s family. It is usually a woman and persistent inquiries might reveal that she knew the late captain of industry/politician/sportsman rather well.


Such women are always a good story… but one that is hardly ever told.

*****

You might recall the famous cable from the Daily Express foreign desk to its war reporter: “MAIL MAN SHOT. WHY YOU UNSHOT?”


Or the shouted question often attributed to an Express reporter as he searched for a story among Belgian evacuees from the war-torn Congo: “Anyone here been raped and speaks English?”


They both appear in a book, now out of print, by Edward Behr, a British reporter for Time magazine. It is a memoir and depicts war correspondents not as heroes but as journalists who stoop to “drinking, underhand competition and, often, fabrication.” Surely not, I hear you sigh.


The book is one of those recommended in a recent piece in The Economist on “What to read to understand journalism”.


Among the others are Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of Morning, a comic novel about an also-ran journalist on a paper not unlike the Daily Telegraph; and The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time, by Hunter S Thompson, a collection of funny and bizarre pieces from his heyday in the Sixties and early Seventies.


To these, let me add my own choices. You should read Shock! Horror! The Tabloids in Action, by S J Taylor. All the great names are there: Brian Hitchen, Larry Lamb, Kelvin MacKenzie. And not forgetting America: Generoso Pope, who owned the US-based National Enquirer and his British editor, Iain Calder, Steve Dunleavy of the New York Post and Jimmy Breslin of New York Newsday.


There are stories that make even me flinch.


You could try The New Journalism, an anthology edited by Tom Wolfe and E W Johnson, which includes articles by Wolfe himself, one of the best exponents of the novelistic approach to our craft. This involved giving the elbow to objectivity and putting yourself at the heart of the story.


Within its covers you will also find pieces by Gay Talese, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion and Nicholas Tomalin, as well as Hunter S Thompson’s terrifying piece, The Hell’s Angels, a Strange and Terrible Saga.


I also recommend The Rum Diary, a novel by Hunter S Thompson (again) about an alcoholic, young reporter washed up like flotsam on Puerto Rico and his adventures while writing horoscopes for the local paper, the Daily Star. I defy you not to recall similar characters and incidents from your own days on provincial papers.


They made it into a funny and dissolute film starring Johnny Depp.


But you have probably got your own favourite book that illuminates the business of journalism. If so, I look forward to hearing from you. You know where to write.


24 October 2023