Skeletons should be rattled before public appointments are made

My Week

For all the talk that business and politics don’t mix, some captains of industry cannot resist answering the call when a minister is on the line.

The difficulty Lord Green finds himself in, with questions unanswered about his role overseeing HSBC’s Swiss tax-dodging arm, recalls Dame Fiona Woolf’s willingness to chair the child abuse inquiry.

Dame Fiona, the former Lord Mayor, never got as far as the role itself, having failed to clarify her closeness to former Home Secretary Lord Brittan, who was expected to be questioned in the review. The vagueness of her disclosures was odd for a commercial lawyer for whom sticking to the facts is sacred.

If Dame Fiona let herself down, she was also let down by the Home Office, whose vetting process was weak. As with Green, the questions these would-be public servants ask of themselves should be matched by an equally thorough quizzing from the government, whose reputational risk in appointing them is just as high.

The God-fearing Lord Green was one of the few banking chief executives to emerge from the financial crisis unscathed. As trade minister, for which he won a berth in the House of Lords, he rated highly in selling the benefits of Britain to the Asian business leaders he had dealt with for decades during his time in Hong Kong. Lord Green continues in a similar ambassadorial role as chairman of lobby group TheCityUK’s advisory council.

Either he was ignorant of what went on at HSBC’s Swiss subsidiary, or he must have suspected the story could catch up with him and former colleagues eventually. Rather than being dragged into a select committee hearing for a grilling after the event, there really should be a better upfront skeleton-rattling.

With the Bank of England and others now queueing up to probe the HSBC affair, Lord Green will be unable to stay silent for long. As Rona Fairhead, a long-standing HSBC non-executive put it when referring to the bank’s failure to spot money laundering at its Mexican operation: “The only way to respond if you made a mistake is to apologise.”

Gordon Brown deserves a Bafta   

The popularity of an event at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London’s Park Lane can be measured by how many dinner tables have to be set up on the balconies that overlook the Great Room, where the food is meant to be served. Last Sunday, for the Bafta awards dinner, the balconies were groaning with seats like few had ever seen.

The size of the bash is a very imprecise indicator that the British film industry is booming. It is no secret that Britain produces more than its fair share of on-screen talent, but the special-effects experts and costumiers are world-leading too. Of course, they can export their skills, and most do, but Hollywood coming to town – making Star Wars, Mission Impossible and the rest here – has been transformative.

Politicians of all hues rush to ally themselves with the creative industries. Danny Alexander, Chuka Umunna and Sajid Javid all tucked in on Bafta night. However, it is Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, who should be thanked for introducing the system of film tax breaks that has proved so successful. In the week that reducing tax bills has been a matter for fierce debate, witness the flip side of cutting tax for the broader economic good.

Sky’s the limit – or is it?

Calling the top of any market is easy in retrospect. It’s just in the middle of a bubble when it is tricky. The £5.1bn Sky and BT paid for Premier League TV rights can’t be beaten, can it? That’s what critics said last time the price went up by 70 per cent, and this week it did so again.

For all sorts of reasons, the broadcasting world will look very different at the time of the next auction in three years. One thing to watch is the invasion into content by technology giants such as Amazon, Netflix and Apple.

Just like the football market topping out, questions have been asked over how much further Apple can go. One moment to sell its shares might have been on the death in autumn 2011 of Steve Jobs, the company’s co-founder and creative spirit. The stock had, after all, doubled in the two years leading up to that point. It is remarkable to think that, as the company surpassed a market value of $700bn this week, they have doubled since Jobs’ death too.

The quota tide could be turning

The appointment of Barbara Judge as the first female chairman of the Institute of Directors caught the eye. Lady Judge has had more directorships than most, so it is a good match. She is also no stranger to firsts, moving to Hong Kong in 1983 as the first female main board executive director of a London merchant bank, Samuel Montagu & Co.

Another notable role, as former chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority, meant she was drafted in by Tepco, owner of the Fukushima nuclear plants that went into meltdown, to advise on winning back public support for the industry.

What is interesting about Lady Judge – instantly recognisable by the uniform of French bun and high-necked ruffled white shirts she took to wearing to advance her New York legal career – is that she is a fan of boardroom quotas for female non-executive directors. The IOD job will give voice to her views. After five years of railing against quotas, I detect the tide is turning on this subject.

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