“Sorry Mummy, it was an accident!”

Simon Woodhead

Simon Woodhead

17th March 2023

By Simon Woodhead

Those are very well used words in our house. My 5 year old daughter is scarily bright and what any parent will relate to when I say “into everything”. An entire toilet roll down the toilet – “sorry Mummy, it was an accident!”. A bar of soap broken up and put down the plug hole – “sorry Mummy, it was an accident!”. A line drawn in red marker pen at 3 year-old height around every wall of every room in the house – “sorry Mummy, it was an accident!”. You get the picture I hope: it wasn’t an accident and she isn’t sorry, but curiosity got the better of her and sometimes the reward of doing something greatly outweighs the consequences of having done it!

By contrast, in 2012 I was unexpectedly thrust into the national (and international) media spotlight. I went from never being on television, to delivering live interviews at every peak in the news day for over a week. I learned an awful lot very quickly, so much so that a month or two later when I attended a pre-booked media training course, it consisted of me sharing my experience as I’d amassed more than anyone attending or delivering the course. Some of you may remember the context, those closest to me know some of the details, and when the time is right there’s probably a book in that week but that time isn’t now. Suffice to say, I think I know a thing or two about the media and their tricks after a solo baptism of fire!

Fast forward to 2023 and we’re approaching 10 years since I started banging the drum about ‘remonopolisation’ and competition simply not working under the current regulatory framework. Ofcom, DCMS, and indeed Westminster have been told innumerable times in various contexts but in my opinion have failed to zoom out remotely far enough to see what is obvious to me after 25+ years in this business. Others have less trusting assumptions about what is going on, and I totally see why.

In February, the CEO of BT made some shocking comments after their Q3 financial results. This was ostensibly in an interview with the Financial Times under a headline of “BT chief warns Openreach fibre push will ‘end in tears’ for rivals”. He was quoted as saying such pearls of wisdom as “There is only going to be one national network”, “Why do you need to have multiple providers?” and “No one else has got a machine anywhere near ours. It’s . . . unstoppable.“. For any CEO, in any industry, to speak like that is obscene and shows competition, and those paid to ensure the former monopolist plays fairly, have failed catastrophically. One might question what assurances could lead to such incredible arrogance. One could also question how a discount scheme rewarding loyal resellers with a 30% discount, which the regulator approves because it won’t affect competition, could have to do with it.

In a subsequent exchange of letters, unclear on which came first as they’re dated the same day, Ofcom expressed their dissatisfaction while Jansen claims he was misquoted.

Now, if you’re drawing up a list of media outlets who have a political agenda, are sensationalist, or pull dirty tricks to get a scoop, the FT would almost certainly be at the bottom, a position it has occupied for as long as I can remember. It is about facts and could be said to be Playboy for Actuaries – the only profession that makes accountancy look exciting. They report facts for direct consumption by the market in appraising the value of shares in companies like BT; there is no place for misquoting or deviating from the facts. As a professional consumer of the FT for a number of years, I simply do not believe his assertions.

Then there is the ability to be misquoted in the first place, however rogue the reporting organisation. One thing I learned quickly was that interviewers started with a conclusion and the questions built to it. As interviewee your role is to get your message out there, repeating often as it will inevitably be edited down, and ensuring editing can’t lead to a misleading message. It is a skill politicians have perfected to excruciating degrees, and it is a skill that is taught. 

So, do we believe that a CEO of the kind of calibre to earn in excess of £3m a year, who was paraded around Davos like a prize-fighter, attending a planned and prepared media briefing in relation to results could be misquoted in such a way? And by the Financial Times? Hell no, that’s just not believable! Even so, what were his entourage (we assume it exists) of PR gurus and image consultants employed by BT doing – you know those who will have recorded the interview to deal with any misquoting legally and to debrief on? I haven’t seen a transcript on the Ofcom web site!

Let’s follow the money. BT’s Q3 results were released on February 3rd with a low in the share price on February 2nd of 118.8p. The results were nothing special – revenue down 2%, pre-tax-profit down 3%. However, in the less than a month to March 6th they rose nearly 26%, to a high 149.55p, presumably on an improved outlook and expectations. Some might say the removal of competition can do that. Whatever drove the price upwards, it is worth over £1m personally to Jansen on his 3m+ share holding.

“Sorry Mummy, it was an accident!”

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