After years of threats and lies, I refuse to take the blame for Rover's collapse

Last week I
was a guest on the BBC West Midlands breakfast show with Adrian
Goldberg. I had been asked on to discuss the sad demise of MG Rover.

Immediately after I had been introduced to listeners, Goldberg attempted to blame me for the collapse of Longbridge.

“So,
David,” he said, “you appear to be backing away from the blame for all
this now. But you were to blame for the Phoenix Four getting their
hands on Rover in the first place weren’t you?”

Goldberg was
referring to a story I had written while at The Sunday Times in April
2000. The story, sourced from John Towers – the infamous leader of the
now notorious Phoenix Four – told of how the Brummie businessmen had
secured £200m backing for their attempt to “rescue” Rover after BMW
announced it was walking away from its “English Patient”.

That story got the attention of the government and the rest is, well, a miserable five-year history.

I
denied Goldberg’s allegations and defended Fleet Street’s role in the
reporting of what has been one of the greatest corporate scandals
Britain has ever witnessed. Since the Phoenix Four took control of
Longbridge in May 2000, I and a number of other journalists covering
Rover have received dozens of legal threats, a constant rubbishing of
our stories and, in the case of my paper, an advertising boycott.

Two
of my colleagues at the Sunday Express were even manhandled and
threatened as they attempted to conduct a survey of Rover staff at
Longbridge last year.

When faced with such a hostile approach
from a company, journalists tend to become more convinced of their case
rather than put off from any further digging.

Rover’s hostility
towards much of Fleet Street was a crucial mistake. It only made me,
and a few others, try even harder to discover just what a mess was
being made of this so-called rescue of 6,000 Longbridge jobs by a
clearly incompetent and selfish management.

The simple fact is
that, despite the protests of MG Rover’s disgraced directors, it was
not the “London media mafia” that caused the collapse of Rover. It was
those four money-grabbing men – John Towers, Peter Beale, Nick
Stephenson and John Edwards – who thought they could revive an already
dead brand.

This uneasy relationship between the Phoenix Four and
the national press had not always been the case. As Oliver Morgan,
business correspondent at The Observer, points out, the Phoenix Four
were actually helped into Longbridge by a London press as keen as
anyone to see Rover jobs saved.

“Towers and his fellow directors
can hardly blame the press for Rover’s downfall when it was he who used
the press to get on to the government’s radar in the first place,” says
Morgan.

“The government was backing Jon Moulton’s Alchemy bid to
buy Rover from BMW, which would have seen 4,000 job losses, and only
considered the Phoenix Four after the press hailed them Rover’s
saviours.”

But the goodwill towards Towers evaporated once the
true scale of the fortune he had built for himself and his fellow
directors began to emerge.

“The Phoenix Four squandered the
goodwill they started with by being greedy,” says Ed Simpkins, business
correspondent at The Sunday Telegraph.

“The low point came when
it emerged that the top brass at MG Rover were earning more than the
top brass at BMW, prompting a BMW executive to describe them as the
unacceptable face of capitalism. I think a lot of people would agree
with that.”

While I wrote story after story about how the Phoenix
Four were taking tens of millions out of Longbridge for themselves
while the business got closer and closer to the brink, Rover pumped out
legal threat after legal threat. I cannot remember how many I received
in total, but there was once a small wood somewhere in the West
Midlands that has disappeared as a result of all those letters.

Towards
the end of 2003, after more than three years of feeling something of a
lone voice on the topic, a few other journalists began writing stories
on Rover and receiving their very own letters from Schillings, Rover’s
libel lawyers at the time.

Christopher Hope, business
correspondent at The Daily Telegraph, had come up with some scoops of
his own about the goings on at Longbridge and began to receive his own
missives from Schillings. So does he blame himself for the
administrators being called into Longbridge?

“I don’t think the
press were responsible for the demise of Rover,” says Hope. “Our main
message behind the stories was that it was clearly wrong that a bunch
of company executives had made millions of pounds for themselves from a
company which was losing hundreds of millions of pounds.”

Ian
King, business editor of The Sun agrees with Hope: “To blame the press
for MG Rover’s demise is just trying to shoot the messenger.”

Now, far be it from me to accuse the Phoenix Four of pumping out mistruths.

I’ll
leave that to Mike Harrison, business editor at The Independent. A
couple of weeks ago Harrison wrote two stories that were so scarily
accurate that there could have been only one source – the company
itself.

“We ran a story on the Monday [4 April] based on a
conversation with Dan Ward [MG Rover’s director of communications]
under the headline ‘Five days to save Rover’, saying it would be bust
by Friday if there was no deal. The following day, they denied it.

They went bust on Friday.

“I
spoke to Beale on the Thursday at 6pm. He expressly denied that anyone
was on standby to come in as administrator. Hey presto, three hours
later PricewaterhouseCoopers are appointed.”

This was an
experience shared by many covering Rover. I had off-therecord briefings
with John Towers in the summer of 2000, when I was on The Sunday Times
business desk. I’d attend those meetings and go back to the office to
write up what he had told me. He would then often deny the story after
we published.

On one occasion he told me he was looking to sell
at least part of the company to a rival manufacturer. I wrote the story
and the very next day he went on television saying it was “complete
rubbish”.

The following week my business editor at the time, John
Jay, met with Towers in an attempt to diffuse what was becoming a tense
relationship between the paper and MG Rover.

Towers confirmed to
Jay what he had told me the week before. Annoyed at Towers’ lies
rubbishing The Sunday Times, Jay decided he was justified in breaking
the first rule of journalism and he revealed Towers as the source of
the story. I also believe he was right to reveal Towers’ hypocrisy.

While
Fleet Street found it almost impossible to get straight answers to
straight questions from the likes of Rover PR man Daniel Ward and
London-based spin doctors Maitland, Birmingham’s regional press –
according to some observers – continued to give Towers and his crew a
largely positive press.

“What is interesting to me is that unless
I have missed it, the local press have been remarkably subdued in any
criticism of the Phoenix Four,” says Dominic O’Connell, industry editor
at The Sunday Times. “This should be a fantastic regional story, led by
them, but they seem to be taking their lead from the nationals.”

David
Brookes, editor of The Sunday Mercury, responded to such criticisms on
behalf of his paper and its sister titles The Birmingham Post and
Birmingham Evening Mail.

“As long ago as October 2000 – just
months after the takeover – the Mercury revealed that the company was
‘in deep financial trouble’ and that ‘senior figures in the Department
of Trade and Industry were becoming jittery because the troubled car
firm could collapse’,”

says Brookes.

“In recent years, all
three titles have criticised the directors’ cosy financial arrangements
and the Evening Mail and Sunday Mercury secured interviews with Towers
to explain his business dealings – something the national press failed
to achieve at the time.”

The truth is that Towers agreed to interviews with the local media because he would get an easy ride.

Brookes
does point to genuinely critical stories but he has failed to mention
the more upbeat headlines that have appeared in the three local
Birmingham titles.

How about the Birmingham Post boast “MG Rover
heading for increase in profits” from November 2003? Or there was the
“Towers of Strength: From Fire Sale To Hot Prospect” in May 2001.

Five
thousand Rover workers received their redundancy notices this week.
Thousands more workers from companies that supplied Rover also face a
dismal future. It is clear that the question of who is to blame is not
the most important issue right now.

But, as the inquests begin, it will not be the press that history will remember destroyed Rover.

Four
men who claimed to be able to work miracles while boosting their bank
balances to the tune of at least £40m will, however, figure large when
the final chapter in this sorry tale is finished.

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