Why British Business Leaders won’t appear on TV shows

March 28, 2008

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In the US, appearing on the right news shows is part of a business leader’s job. In the UK, there is far more reticence by business leaders to court such publicity. Which culture is better served by its leaders and celebrity news presenters?

In one of his recent blogs, Robert Peston draws attention to an interesting difference between American and British business leaders.

When a chairman or chief executive appears on BBC television or radio, he or she is typically talking to millions of people in the UK and across the globe via our assorted programmes and channels and platforms. That’s appealing to a minority of business people, such as Stuart Rose of Marks and Spencer or Justin King of J Sainsbury. Their visibility, they believe, sends out a strong message of confidence in their respective businesses to their customers, employees and shareholders. Other executives are more reclusive, they cherish their privacy – which is understandable. It’s part of my job to persuade them they have a duty to be accountable, via the BBC, to the many different groups which have an interest in their respective companies

Well, yes, up to a point. As one of the BBC’s celebrity business journalists himself, Robert Peston has taken an understandable perspective. But methinks he doth protest a bit too much. Or, anyway, glosses over a very interesting difference in the way in which the media interact with business in America and the UK.

Hollywood invented the star system as a brilliant marketing strategy. The image of the star was supported by the studios and developed the image-building techniques and principles.

Off screen, the Holllywood star had to have an impeccable public life. On stage, the image was also that of the heroic figure. The male lead is exceptional, and yet someone who is also recognised as role-modelling important cultural norms. These include self-reliance, championing the oppressed against the forces of evil or morality. The faithful lieutenant knows his place, and his place is to perform well but not to upstage the star.

Every Lone Ranger has his Tonto …

The drama creates the world in which the audience suspends disbelief in the artifice. When successful the production helps generate popular demand for more of the same. For sequels and even prequels. The images replicate themselves.

We do things differently

Pursuing the metaphor, we can detect cultural differences. If Hollywood produced its heroes capturing and arguably helping create the American dream. While influenced by Hollywood, The British Film industry developed its own cultural mores through its own golden era of war-time propaganda firms in the 1940s, Korda, and Rank were driving forces behind the studios at Ealing and Pinewood.

These centres of creative film-making also helped establish the courageous and modest British hero with intrepid sidekick.

Every Holmes had his Watson …

Propaganda films reinforced the rigid class stratifications of the 1940s, although if anything the class divide between hero and chirpy sidekick in the war dramas strengthened the notion of an officer class, leading a nation of cheerful and indomitable lower orders.

Fast forward

In their related ways Hollywood and Pinewood found space for the rebellious hero. They also celebrated the progress of the self-made man.

Let’s fast-forward to a world of multi-media communications. California has provided a former American President, and its current State Governor.

The candidates for the next president of The United States are a charismatic young man making good; the dynastic successor of a former charismatic leader: and the veteran war hero. More than ever, media presentation will be vital in deciding the way the non-party voters move.

A similar context can be seen around the image-making of commerical figures. With some honourable exceptions, American TV interviewers of business leaders tend to be far more respectful.

The encounters are more obviously a performance in which each of the actors knows his or her parts. There is little difficulty in seeing how that old sociological metaphor of role-players applies. The business leader acts out the role of the able, honest, trustworthy figure. The interviewer acts out the role of able honest, trustworthy lieutenant.

The convention permits some variations in the playing of the roles, but there has also been a lot of convergence towards what is box-office.

Meanwhile, something quite different has happened in the UK. There has always been a theme of the revolutionary and rebellious hero. In the UK, the theme has developed into the celebrity newscaster taking on the establishment. The lawyer, politician and BBC journalist Robin Day was an early proponent in the 1960s.

Fast Forward to Modern Days.

The trend-setting Robin Day has been followed by another generation of celebrity journalists. The dominant themes of drama has all-but-been inverted, with the action reverting to the ancient Greek dramas in which vengeance is meted out to evil leaders by the avenging nemesis as played by the interrogator. It’s Tonto punishing The Lone Ranger. For episode after episode.

The star-system now builds up the image of the studio or channel’s new stars. Competition is fierce. As the Guardian recently reported, the stars are really battling with each other.

The paper was commentating on a public spat between two of the snarliest beasts in the media jungle, John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman.

To help decide the issue, perhaps we need a Celebrity Newsreader [contest] , scoring the two on Aggressive Interrupting, Exasperated Repetition and Curmudgeonly Books about England …

The problem with superhero battles, as any comics fan will tell you, is that it leaves the way clear for an arch-nemesis to clean up with nefarious schemes. Have you seen how much work Sir Trevor McDonald is getting these days?

Quite. It is hardly surprising that business leaders and politicians are avoiding the roles offered them in the dramas.

Leadership lessons

If the increasingly dated style of Humphrys and Paxman were to be seen and compared with interviewers with a less confrontational, yet engaging style, we may well get more glimpses of our business leaders.

Would we be better off as a society? The American system offers more showings of their business and political leaders. They are not particularly popular as prime-time material. As with the president’s well-managed press conferences, they are too rehearsed to be particularly revealing.

Perhaps in the UK, a successor to the much-missed Antony Clare would be worth seeking.