Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Honesty is the best policy

The Times today says that the Shell oil company ‘repeatedly lied to shareholders about the value of its oil and gas reserves.’ Good heavens. Just think of that. Businessmen telling lies. And British businessmen too. There’s just no end to human wickedness, is there?

Fortunately, nothing like that could ever happen in the world of books. Because all publishers, as I may have remarked before, are gentlemen. Some of them went to quite good schools, and even universities, and so it is inconceivable that any of them could mislead their shareholders. Or even stakeholders – among whom, of course, writers figure prominently. Happily, as we are all aware, writers are treated by publishers with the utmost respect and concern for their welfare.

It is worth remembering, however, that it was not always so. Robert Maxwell, for instance, was a publisher. And Mr Maxwell, I regret to say, was not always entirely scrupulous in his dealings. Well, he was a foreigner originally, so what can you expect?

In his book Reputations under Fire, David Hooper recounts some of Maxwell’s more flagrant crimes. On one occasion, Maxwell decided that the end-of-year accounts for one of his companies, company A, were less than satisfactory. So he arranged for another of his companies, company B, to ‘buy’ 5,000 encyclopaedias from A. There was nothing in writing, and as a matter of fact company A didn’t even have 5,000 encyclopaedias in stock, but the deal went through and was recorded as a ‘sale’, thus ensuring that company A ended the year in profit. After the end of the financial year, the order was cancelled.

I once had some dealings with Lord Kearton, who was an unashamed admirer of Maxwell and had worked with him for years. I say with him, please note, rather than for him. Kearton told me that when he held the post of chairman of one of Maxwell’s major companies, he refused to take a salary. Maxwell found this very bizarre, apparently. But, Kearton said, once you took Maxwell’s money you were just another employee. You would be rung up at three o’clock in the morning and bullied, just like everyone else on the payroll. If you refused his money, on the other hand, he would treat you with respect, and there was at least half a chance that he might listen to what you said.

Those who knew Kearton were often puzzled by his admiration for Maxwell, because the latter was such an obvious crook. Kearton, by contrast, seemed to me to be absolutely honest. When I knew him, towards the end of his life, he was Chancellor of the University of Bath. This was an honorary position, the chief function being to hand out degrees at the end of the academic year, but Kearton took the job seriously. Every couple of weeks, sometimes more often, he would drive himself to various committee meetings at the University (which was a 180-mile round trip) and he gave freely of his time and experience. The office of Chancellor did not have any salary attached, but Kearton was entitled to draw travel expenses for these visits. Typically, he never bothered to claim, but I made it my business to see that his costs were covered; it seemed to be the least we could do. At the end of one year I worked out what was due to him, at the standard rate per mile, and found that it came to about £1,100. I rounded it down and sent him a cheque for £1,000. Kearton sent it back. A thousand pounds was, he said, far too much; five hundred would do.

I’m not sure they make businessmen like that any more.

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