Is the media mogul dead?

The future of a great tradition rests with Lord Bell

It’s been a bad week to be an invincible communications overlord. With WPP’s Martin Sorrell on the receiving end of the encouragingly named "shareholder spring", we’ve seen a decrease in moustache-twirling in the once engagingly despotic world of global public relations. Is there room in the brave new caring, sharing, transparent world of communications for a good old fashioned media tsar?

If there is, the mantle must be taken up by Lord Bell. The former Thatcher spin doctor and recent Paxman sparring partner has successfully negotiated a deal with Chime to buy a section of its PR businesses for a total sum of £19.6m. He spoke to industry bible PRWeek:

We’re going to run a private company and our private lives will become private again. I’m relishing the opportunity and I’m sure my colleagues are as well.

The arched eyebrow and slow, finger by finger tap on the solid ivory desk are left to one’s imagination.

The newly formed BPP Communications takes Bell Pottinger Public Relations, Chime's 60 percent stake in Pelham Bell Pottinger, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, Bell Pottinger Sans Frontières and Bell Pottinger Middle East. This leaves Chime to operate its remaining PR businesses under the lobbying-free "Good Relations Group", headed by the disappointingly cheery current Bell Pottinger group chairman Kevin Murray. According to the Holmes Report, Chime will:

Invest the proceeds of the sale in its faster growing businesses: sports marketing, digital communications and healthcare communications.

Not exactly Citizen Kane, but with Chime’s share price climbing by 11 per cent by lunchtime on the day of the deal, clearly investors didn’t care. Easy to see why Investec make disparaging reference to "the PR distraction" in their approving comments on the deal from Chime's perspective.

The question that now must be asked is how the UK lobbying industry is going to launder its image if it wants to be seen as a valuable area of development. Every day Leveson, reading out SMS messages like a disapproving classics teacher, does further damage to the myth of the direct line – a lobbyist’s stock in trade – as a thrillingly effective magic button. As the unease caused by the Independent's sting on Bell Pottinger wears off, calls for a mandatory register of lobbyists have been forgetten, yet the industry continues to flounder. And Martin Sorrell’s other troubles have hardly been alleviated by his perceived attachments to a dodgy business.

The industry’s image is something even Bell has on his mind. He concludeds his comments to PRWeek with an upsettingly mundane revelation:

A proposed name for the holding company was Backgammon, but this was later dismissed as it sounded as if they were calling the new venture "a gamble".

Clearly there’s just no place in this world for spy novel theatrics or board game analogies any more.

The last of the moguls, Martin Sorrell. Photograph: Getty Images

Josh Lowe is a freelance journalist and communications consultant. Follow him on Twitter @jeyylowe.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit