Digby Jones: You don't have to be a bully to succeed in business

'The Apprentice' shows business in a nasty light, utterly brutal in its pursuit of the bottom line
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The Independent Online

So now the nation knows. After almost four months of television, Michelle Dewberry has been chosen by Sir Alan Sugar to be his "apprentice", and I wish her every success. But, although I am reluctant to knock anything that gets people interested in the world of work, I fear that the reputation of "business" has taken another undeserved and very dangerous hammering in the eyes of the general public.

Driven by the need to be entertaining and achieve decent ratings, The Apprentice portrays business in a nasty light, prehistoric in its treatment of people and utterly brutal in its pursuit of the bottom line at all costs.

Sadly, that is representative of the way business is usually portrayed in the media and, in turn, understood by the wider public, worryingly including schools. All too often the bad guy in popular soap operas is the businessman - from Paul Robinson in Neighbours to Ian Beale in EastEnders.

All these caricatures are at odds with the realities of the successful modern workplace, where the way things get done is through leadership, inspiration, trust, team working and investment in staff. People are the greatest assets of all businesses, and whatever trade unions might say, those who run the businesses of the UK know it.

The poor images of an older guy in a Roller screaming "you're fired" through the smoke of his cigar sticks in the public mindset, and most clearly in the minds of the young - the very people we are reliant on to drive our business and economic success in the future. And while a small minority might be encouraged to choose a career as an entrepreneur or elsewhere in business, my fear is that many more could be put off from a path that can bring a sense of pride and allow people to make something of themselves.

This lack of understanding about the way business works is not just confined to sections of the TV-viewing public. Although it is by no means the norm, we still see decisions made by civil servants or politicians that betray a desperately poor understanding of business. Politicians of all parties continue to make the right noises about the importance of business to society. They profess to understand that business is the only creator of wealth in modern society, the motor of growth and prosperity that directly or indirectly funds the schools, hospitals and railways upon which we rely.

Yet anti-business rhetoric is increasingly creeping into political language as the fight for the centre ground intensifies. It is too easy to play to the gallery and portray business in this way - but it is a cheap result which does not achieve anything.

As the numbers game in Parliament and the public finances get ever tighter, more and more measures are emerging from the Government that hurt business's ability to create that wealth. Not least, the dramatic increase in the tax burden on business - up by a staggering £60bn since 1997.

But businesses only have the right, in my view, to ask the democratically elected leaders of this country to allow that wealth creation process to happen if we are socially inclusive in the way that we go about our wealth creation. We have to win the respect of those we affect by our actions. We have no right to it. And if it is there to be won, it is there also to be lost.

Politicians will respond to those people whose respect we win because they need them for their livelihood and power. So it is for us in business to be socially inclusive in our wealth creation. We have to be better trainers of our people. We have to equip them and give them confidence in their own abilities in a very frightening globalised world, a world in which the rise of India and China is relentless.

Our young people must feel equipped to cope in a world where being skilled is the only route to secure employment (in both the private and public sectors) and employers have the responsibility to reach out, down and under to ensure that all of society is welcomed into the world of skilled work.

But others have to be responsible too. I believe we are blessed with probably the best journalists and media in the world. Their quality and investigative zeal keep politicians and others in public life more honest than their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Our national newspapers devote increasing amounts of space to business issues.

So now is the time for our broadcasters to really step up to the plate. They need to build on the current interest in reality TV, and an increasingly intense political battleground, to produce more and better business coverage - both in their news and entertainment programming. This would not only do business a favour - it would do the nation a great service too.

The writer is the Director General of the CBI