'Megalomania' at the BBC, 'worthless' HSBC stock analysts and a sharp 'spank from Hank'

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The Independent Online

"There is a degree of uncertainty about what he actually stands for," Richard Lambert, head of the CBI employers' group, said of David Cameron last month. Well, unprincipled politicians are nothing new, but luckily those following the world of business had plenty more to occupy them in 2006 than the Tories' clone of Tony Blair. So, here are the choicest quotes of the year uttered by the movers and shakers of industry, commerce and high finance.

We kick off with Mr Lambert's predecessor, Sir Digby Jones, who stepped down from the CBI in June after six and a half years at its helm, and could have done without the accounting scandal at the NHS software provider iSoft to spoil his lap of honour. Arguing that he did all he could to check iSoft's accounting was accurate while on the company's board as an independent director, Sir Digby said: "There is a limit to what a non-executive can know." He added: "They have to rely on what advisers tell them and what the executive team tells them." Clearly, some independent research under his own initiative was out of the question for the former CBI boss.

But at least he tried to explain himself. Which is more than can be said of Sir Clive Thompson, chairman of the now collapsed Christmas savings firm Farepak. When the business went into administration in October, leaving 150,000 low-income savers out of pocket, Sir Clive remained tight-lipped and headed for a holiday at a £2,500-a-night hotel in Buenos Aires, thereby casting himself as the Scrooge of Christmas 2006. His managing director, Nick Gilodi-Johnson, was left to make the apologies. "What has happened to Farepak and its customers is nothing short of a tragedy," he said, adding: "I am really gutted that everybody has lost out like this."

In the world of heavy industry, there was probably no more significant deal in 2006 than the takeover of steel maker Arcelor by the billionaire Lakshmi Mittal. It sparked a consolidation of the global steel industry, but the coup was no walk in the park for the Indian-born tycoon. Along with the complication of trying to buy a Luxembourg company, listed on three European exchanges with operations in France and Spain and shareholders including the government of Belgium's Walloon region, Mr Mittal had to face the verbal abuse of Arcelor chief executive Guy Dollé. He described Mittal Steel as a "company of Indians" and a "group of less than average" businesses that would pay for Arcelor "in monkey money". In his view, European steel was like "perfume" and Mittal's steel like "eau de cologne". But, in the domain of modern business, where international investors control most shareholder lists, Mr Dollé's rhetoric did not get him very far. In this world only profit matters and Mr Mittal's takeover offered investors a lot more dough than any alternative proposed by Mr Dollé so it was inevitable that the Indian tycoon would win. As the late press baron Robert Maxwell loved to say: "When money talks bullshit walks."

Staying with the theme of tycoons, in November James Murdoch showed the first signs that he may have the chutzpah to take on the running of his father's media empire one day. Within weeks of scuppering NTL's planned bid for ITV he went on the offensive against the rival BBC, mocking it for "fantasising about creating a British Google" to be funded by the taxpayer. "This is not public service, it's megalomania," he added. Of course, members of the Murdoch family may be better placed to recognise the symptoms of the psychological disorder than most.

Meanwhile, James Murdoch's blocking of the ITV/ NTL tie-up meant the throne at ITV was once again vacant. Michael Grade decided to fill it, telling his old colleagues he was faced "with the choice of getting back into programming or 'governing' the BBC from a distance" as chairman of Auntie's governors. Yet one can't also help thinking that mercantile considerations also played their part in Mr Grade's decision to jump ship from the BBC to ITV. At ITV he is expected to collect around £2m a year, compared with £140,000 at the BBC.

In the lucrative world of high finance, Goldman Sachs dominated the headlines not only for the record bonuses of those who work at the US bank, but it also, for a while, it looked intent on buying up much of corporate Britain. But this tactic put too many noses out of joint and Hank Paulson, the bank's boss, decided to rein in his "London dogs", warning them that short-term profits should not be at the expense of long-term reputation and relationships. The Financial Times came up with the memorable headline: "A spank from Hank".

But the 2006 award for candour goes to Graham Copley, global head of equity research at HSBC. Unhappy with the quality of research produced by stock analysts at the bank, he described much of their output as "worthless".

For our finale we return to those untrustworthy politicians. Just two weeks ago, Tony Blair, with the help of the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, cancelled a three-year investigation into alleged corruption by BAE Systems just as it looked to be getting to the truth behind the multi-billion pound Al Yamamah defence deal. Why? Well, if you believe Tony Blair and Lord Goldsmith, it was because of "the need to safeguard national and international security" with "no weight given to commercial interests or to the national economic interest". Of course, no one does, least of all their former cabinet colleague, Clare Short, who said: "This Government is even more soiled than we thought it was. It means BAE is above the law. The message it sends to corrupt businessmen is carry on - the Government will support you."

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