Jill Finney, the City and me

Lessons from the market-place, where bullying was normal. Plus,the late Mick Aston and a dirth of straightforward television
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The Independent Online

As one who, some years ago, laboured in the same City marketing department as Jill Finney, erstwhile deputy chief executive of the Care Quality Commission, I have naturally been taking a keen interest in the imbroglio of which she seems to have become a part. It would be wrong of me, of course, to divulge any of the matters that passed between us – and such revelations are no doubt forbidden by the Data Protection Act – but the affair did make me reflect on the "bullying culture" which the Commission is alleged to have inflicted on its employees, and to wonder when the idea that the secret of corporate success lies in treating the people who work for you as wretchedly as possible first started making its presence felt.

Folk memory usually insists that the City of London turned nasty in the late 1980s, shortly after the deregulatory Big Bang which not only allowed professional services firms to colonise territory that had previously been off-limits, but opened the Square Mile up to American business techniques, American business technicians and the sound notion that you really ought to jump on a competitor's testicles before he jumped on yours. Certainly, the pre-Big Bang city was full of awkward customers, grave eminences and pompous asses – "The partner is always right" is a phrase that echoes down from those years – but it was an old-school pomposity, born of caste, status and tradition. All you had to do in its presence was cravenly to defer, nod your head at what passed for gentlemanly wit, and then skulk back to your nest among the filing cabinets.

Come the 1990s, on the other hand, the atmosphere had changed. There were fewer of the pompous asses and the corridors of EC2 were suddenly full of predatory young sharks who took a positive pride in having to say goodnight to their children over the phone. But there was more to it than a general shift in corporate assumptions, bonfires of dead wood and new expectations of what the job might be supposed to demand from the besuited tough-guy who was doing it.

The City could only cope with its new deregulated environment, in which firms were allowed to advertise and publicise their activities in ways that would have been unimaginable a decade before, by engaging roomfuls of hirelings from adland and PR agencies. Some of them were good at their jobs, and others less good, but despite a great deal of blather to the contrary they were not "professional" in the old sense of the world, and the protocols they brought to this new sphere of influence were pretty much made up as they went along.

All this, seeping out by degrees to infect the water-table of the government agencies, has helped to create a new kind of corporatism, whose iniquities, a quarter of a century after the virus first took hold, are rendered that much more insidious by technology. Nothing abets a bullying culture more than 24-hour access to the minions who drudge for you, by way of mobile phones and personal computers. And so every train out of London on a weekday evening is full of harassed-looking worker ants, wondering what fresh text-delivered hell the boss has fashioned for the dawn. To ban electronic communications devices from public transport after 6pm would be to revolutionise corporate culture at a stroke.


The obituaries of the archaeologist Professor Mick Aston, long-time ornament of Channel 4's Time Team, who died on Monday, cast a revealing light on one of the great cultural fissures of the modern age: the gap between the academic specialist and the great mass of the public who are interested (at any rate prospectively) in what the specialist has to say but nervous of the jargon which hangs over these descents from Olympus like a shroud.

To Aston, the membrane that separates the lecture theatre from the television screen was, or at any rate should have been, permeable. His aim, according to his colleague Tony Robinson, was to share his passion for archaeology with ordinary people. Professional peers were less enthusiastic, "and he was deeply wounded by the vociferous attacks he suffered".

By chance, I happened to be at a conference a couple of weeks ago in which the participants included several professional archaeologists and a television historian. At the close of a lecture by one of the former, the latter made so bold as to ask a question, only to be treated with as much suavity as a fly landing on the edge of a dinner plate. It was the old story of professional nous not wanting to be sullied by what it sees as popularising generalisation but the chasm edging into view beneath it ought to give serious cause for concern.

Half a century ago, the "Two Cultures" debate, involving such titans as C P Snow and F R Leavis, was a source of wide-ranging public controversy. You can just imagine the kind of newspaper coverage this sort of thing would attract today ("Boffin says books suck" etc). My own view is that the media patronises the mass audience, which is far sharper, intellectually, than commissioning editors assume. Rather than spending millions of pounds on expensively located re-creations, the BBC would do much better to hire some eminent man or woman, and stick them – without props – before the camera, and simply let them talk.