Nobody wanted to talk about BP's second-quarter figures yesterday, with news of another profits gusher being entirely overshadowed by the humdinger of a row that had broken out over the chief executive's retirement date. In the end, Lord Browne did the only thing he decently could, which was to insist that he would be going as planned in 2008. Indeed, he would be going whether the board liked it or not.
This is faintly reminiscent of the guy who when told he's fired says that's fine because he was intending to resign anyway. In truth, Lord Browne wanted to be asked to stay on longer, or to have been offered the chairmanship.
Whatever he says, the final outcome will have been a disappointment to him, notwithstanding the apparent concession from the board that he be allowed to stay until the end of 2008, so as to see out BP's centennial year, rather than going on his 60th birthday 10 months earlier.
Of course, that's nearly two and a half years away, leaving an awfully long time for things to change. Yet unlike Tony Blair, he's named a leaving date, allowing succession planning to begin in earnest. Whatever happens, it will now be hard to reverse that decision.
Lord Browne was putting the bravest face he could on it all yesterday, but his insistence that he had no idea where the campaign to change the board's mind had come from was laughably disingenuous. No wonder the press is as cynical as it is. This kind of denial of what everyone knows to have been the reality does little credit to anyone.
After what's just occurred, Lord Browne's insistence that his relationship with Peter Sutherland, the chairman, is characterised by mutual respect and understanding is equally risible. By the time all this came to a head, Lord Browne had so many people out there spinning on his behalf that it would have done credit to a troupe of whirling dervishes.
Sometimes, of course, it is genuinely the case that the courtiers and ambassadors overstep the mark and begin saying things which are largely a figment of their own fevered imaginings, or are instructed by their own personal agendas. I doubt that's what happened here, however.
I've long believed Lord Browne ought to be allowed to step up to the chairmanship at BP, though I'm very aware that the opposite case can be equally powerfully argued. Many of the same concerns were voiced by investors in General Electric when the time came for Jack Welch to go. How could the company possibly survive the great man's demise?
As it happens, GE has continued to evolve and prosper under the new CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, demonstrating unambiguously that the company is bigger than the man. Indeed, it later emerged that Mr Welch's influence may have been a largely negative one in his latter years. In the end, the board of BP has similarly decided on the need for renewal. It was a unanimous decision, not the bullyboy tactics of a chairman determined to outlive his chief executive.
Outright disaster and embarrassment has now been averted, but Lord Browne's attempt to kick against that decision could have ended in much less benign circumstances, with either the chairman or the chief executive forced to go with immediate effect. As it is, things have been said in the heat of the moment that rarely become public knowledge in an organisation as apparently well managed and orderly as BP.
For instance, I gather that it is perfectly true that last year Peter Sutherland and the rest of the board blocked an attempt by Lord Browne to merge with one of BP's rivals, a deal which as well as sealing Lord Browne's reputation as a deal maker par excellence might have made him indispensable to the company for many years to come. This piece of tittle-tattle, leaked to rubbish one side or another, is an extraordinary act of indiscretion by someone within BP, and just shows what happens when personal friction at the top gets out of hand.
As it is, there is every possibility that yesterday's statement by Lord Browne will not have achieved the closure the company hopes for. If there's continued hostility between chairman and chief executive, there is a high chance also of paralysis in the company's affairs.
In such a fast moving industry, two and a half years of paralysis would be utterly disastrous. As I say, I was a supporter of the idea that Lord Browne eventually be allowed to step up to the chairmanship, not withstanding the obvious dangers. For any organisation to lose such a wealth of experience and institutional knowledge looks to me like carelessness. Yet though nobody should be criticised for fighting their corner, the events of the past week perhaps support the board's view that there comes a time in the affairs of men, and 15 years at the head of one of the world's biggest oil companies is very definitely it.
What's just happened is at best unfortunate and undignified. Let's just hope that this is how it remains.
Runners and riders for ITV's top job
Who is going to replace Charles Allen as the chief executive of ITV? There are no puffs of white smoke about Mr Allen yet, but the view from the studio floor is that, by making it known he's considering his options, Mr Allen is already as good as gone. Whoever it is that replaces him, it's going to be one hell of a challenge.
Personally, I'm not putting any money at all on Greg Dyke, though he is already being widely touted in the City. After his failed bid for ITV earlier this year, he's a busted flush. Even Anthony Bolton of Fidelity, ITV's largest shareholder, will turn his nose up at him. In any case, even the remotest hint that Greg might get the job will have Mr Allen hurtling back from South Africa to defend his turf. If anything is guaranteed to change Mr Allen's mind about leaving, it would be the thought that Mr Dyke, Mr Allen's nemesis while at the BBC, might succeed him.
So what about Tony Ball, former chief executive of BSkyB? He once famously accused ITV of not being able to run a bath. Yet I'm told he's still counting the spoils of his tenure at BSkyB and wouldn't be prepared to do it anyway, even if he were not these days a tax exile.
Or perhaps Mr Allen's chairman, Sir Peter Burt, should go for the double-headed hire of Andy Duncan and Kevin Lygo at Channel 4. With its eclectic mix of the high and low brow, Channel 4 has done much better than ITV1 in holding its own against the fragmentation of multichannel TV. The digital strategy looks sure-footed too, though making FilmFour "free" surely wouldn't have been possible were it not for the fact that Channel 4 is a not-for-profit organisation. Yet to be forced to hire from a smaller rival might be too much humble pie for ITV yet to take.
That leaves Stephen Carter, who has just retired as the chief executive of Ofcom. He's on gardening leave for the next three or four months, so for now cannot formally throw his hat into the ring. Yet there would be a pleasing symmetry about his eventual appointment. For Mr Allen, at least, it would allow sufficient time to elapse to make it appear he's not been hounded out of his job. He would also be a successor both Mr Allen and Sir Peter could agree on.
Whether it would be thought entirely right and proper for Mr Carter to accept such a post so soon after giving up the reins at Ofcom is another matter. While the communications regulator, he was instrumental in sanctioning the creation of a single ITV. There have also been massive regulatory concessions over the licence fee.
Even so, if he's the right man for the job, these concerns of etiquette should not be allowed to get in the way. It would genuinely never have crossed Mr Carter's mind while he was giving ITV all it wanted that he might eventually be repaid with a top job. These were acts of public policy, designed to give ITV a fighting chance in a fast changing media landscape. Mr Carter may be about to find out the hard way that they were not enough.Reuse content