Thursday, December 27, 2018

Policing the boundaries of a community

When I pitched up in Manchester in 2000 to edit North West Business Insider, a well-established regional business magazine, it took a while for the scale of the responsibility to sink in. I barely had a contract, let alone an instruction manual. And certainly no-one took me into a back room and handed me the keys to the secret files.

On the one hand, the sales team had one set of expectations - come up with good ideas that they could sell advertising and sponsorship around. But the far harder responsibility was to make the publication and the brand relevant in the long term. The previous editors all bequeathed me a mixed set of expectations: one was to be accessible, commercial and of good quality; another was to be spiky and brave; and the third was to have a witty, yet powerful voice. All of them had a sense of what would attract readers, which is what the advertisers needed to be sure we had. I was also fairly wedded to strong magazine aesthetics and thought the design was dated and needed refreshing in time.

But this piece isn't a memoir, or a reflection on the nuances of magazine editorship. It is, however, something that's been burning inside me for a while. One of the mantles I was handed was a deeper moral duty, part of a wider purpose as a community clarion to take very seriously what it meant to transact good business in the regions of England. It came with a responsibility to expose crooks and chancers. The magazine was a sustained success because it was part of a community. In so doing we were happy to celebrate the successes of businesses and entrepreneurs who were doing well, who were working hard in pursuit of a common good, but also we were all trying to explain the new rules of an ever-changing world. But that community was also sustained by resolute policing of the boundaries. 

Grimly, sadly, sometimes we'd get taken for a ride. Before I arrived, we had featured a character in the list of the 42 under 42, an annual roll call of new emerging talent. He called himself Paul Raymond Versace, yes, after the fashion label. He popped up as a charitable philanthropist and posed for a photograph with the great and the good of Manchester's business community. His inclusion in the Sunday Times Rich List, and disgracefully, our own, triggered a number of incredulous phone calls from people with an altogether different view of this character. He was using his media and charity connections for personal advantage, opening doors and building credibility. With the help of good sources, and in a fairly short space of time, we had enough to piece together a damning story. Some of the national press waded in with far less subtlety, and he was placed right out of circulation.

Other tip offs followed and we started to get a reputation. I'll be honest, our rival publication, EN magazine, also got stuck in to a few targets and upped their game. Simon Donohue from the Manchester Evening News did a blistering series of articles exposing Reuben Singh. I got a bee in my bonnet about the fact that chancers were turning up to meetings at banks with a clippings file of positive media stories, sometimes with the name of my magazine included. I became obsessed, even chasing down two stories when I was on holiday in Marbella with my family. I formed an alliance with Sue Craven from Armstrong Craven, who remains a good friend to this day. She would help me understand detailed research reports, on labyrinth corporate structures, which helped me to get my head around credit reports and see what the data was saying. One was on a target called The Accident Group, which I long suspected was a house of cards. It turned out to be far worse than that.

A lot of this became self-sustaining, lawyers, corporate finance advisors and property agents would use their intelligence and their networks and tip me off about the latest shyster doing the rounds. 

There were gangmasters, VAT scammers, celeb chasers, phoney football agents, jolly chaps telling stories in the Stag's Head and asking the lads to chuck in a cheeky 50k for a deal that wouldn't happen. You literally couldn't invent a fictional character like Paul "The Plumber" Davidson, but he proved to be the gift that kept on giving. Our hounding of him won us many friends.

In all of these cases, the front of the brain would compute one set of responses, the back of the brain was screaming a different set of messages. Sometimes I'd spend far too long looking for evidence on someone I wasn't sure about. Often it wasn't the money, but the tales of sex, or drugs. I had good lawyers and solid media law training so I knew when to stop, when to draw the line, it was beyond me to expose Manchester's Harvey Weinstein, were we to have found one. In those instances where you know something isn't right, you just had to exercise the one remaining option left, ignore them. Let someone else do their propaganda for them.

Time and again I'd see the same patterns emerge. Grand gestures around charitable giving, associating with genuinely successful and credible people, the desperate seeking of honours and the ostentatious wearing of the badge of corporate social responsibility, which my late great friend Walter Menzies called "the icing on the shit".

That was a different time, but it's not a different place. The resources and reach of the media have been transformed in recent years. I lost my capacity to do anything meaningful over time and created a satirical outlet instead. 

So where are we now?

I've never known a time when businesses in Manchester and the North West have needed someone, something, to police the boundaries more than now. 

I'm firmly on the record for welcoming a Mayor of Greater Manchester. But as much as such an office holds power and leverage, so too it needs protection from those that see it as a quick route to credibility, power and glory. I believe in it too much to see its credibility and moral authority undermined. Same goes for business organisations who have incredible convening power. I have a few opportunities working at a university to promote good work, networks and sound causes. But I'm well out of the media game these days. And I'm not even sure the business press, online and print, is up to it.

But just as campaigns and political movements have been transformed by technology, so too can scrutiny and community protection. I don't know how, I don't know who, but I'm very open to ideas.

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