From Boris to the Murdochs

What can Guto Harri do for News International?

“He never struck me as that remarkable,” a former colleague of Guto Harri's told me as rumours spread that he was set to leave City Hall for News International. “But I guess he must have something going for him.”
 
The key thing that Harri has going for him is his close relationship with Boris Johnson, who Private Eye recently described as the man “fast becoming the Digger’s favourite politician”. Under Harri’s guidance, Johnson has remained consistently and vocally loyal to the Murdochs, despite most other political allies remaining quiet or deserting them altogether.
 
When the Guardian first reported on phone hacking at News International, the Mayor publicly dismissed the story as “a load of codswallop cooked up by the Labour party.” And as the Met began their investigations, his policing deputy repeatedly tried to persuade them to scale back their inquiries.
 
“The caravan should move on,” insisted Boris as yet more revelations emerged. “Real people are so apathetic about the Leveson business,” he repeated again in the Telegraph last week. “In all its lavish coverage of Murdoch, hacking and BSkyB, the BBC never properly explains the reasons why other media organisations – including the BBC – want to shaft a free-market competitor.”
 
As the election approached you might have expected Boris to keep his distance from NI. But just one day after Rebekah Brooks was arrested in a dawn raid, Boris met with the Sun's editors for lunch. Following their meeting, the paper lavished extensive coverage on the Mayor, describing him as fighting hard for “White Van Man”, a claim based on his policy of extending free parking on some London roads by ten minutes. His opponent Ken Livingstone meanwhile was described simply as a “villain”.
 
Harri too has remained loyal to his old contacts. “He is known to be in constant contact with Andy Coulson,” explains one biography (now outdated). Such constant contact seems to have paid off with Harri freely admitting that his new appointment will be seen as "part of an irresistible geometrical pattern" between the Conservatives and News International. But what does Harri have to offer the company, aside from his loyalty?
 
His time as Director of Communications at City Hall will chiefly be remembered for his policy of limiting access to the mayor to all but the most unquestioning members of the media. Shortly after Boris’s election, Guto cancelled the regular City Hall press conferences. Out went the dry reports and question and answer sessions of the Livingstone years and in came an endless series of celebrity-backed ribbon-cutting events where the likes of Kelly Brook, Barbara Windsor and Peter Andre all posed grinning with the Mayor.

Questions from journalists were strictly limited at these events and Harri has consistently kept Boris away from any interviewer who cannot be relied upon to play nice. Chief among the “awkward squad” is BBC London’s political editor Tim Donovan who has repeatedly been refused interviews with the Mayor on the channel's weekend politics show. When Donovan dared to report on Boris’s links with News International, he earned a sweary on-air rant from the mayor. Boris has since gone on to attack BBC London as his “chief opponent" during the election campaign.

Other journalists have been submitted to more underhand attacks. When Boris’s former colleague Sonia Purnell set out to write his biography, “sources close to the Mayor” privately briefed that Purnell was a spurned and embittered admirer of Johnson, a smear that was hinted at in much of the coverage of her excellent book.
 
Along the way Harri has gathered a number of critics on the right. Rather than being a straightforward Murdoch appeaser, they accuse him of actually spending far too much time trying to win over people who will not support the mayor no matter what happens. Despite Boris’s public grumbles about the left-wing media, Harri invited over a hundred journalists from the BBC and the Guardian to the Mayor’s media reception at City Hall last year. The Sun, by contrast, received just six invites.
 
What Harri understands is that in a left-leaning city, Boris needs to appeal well beyond his own party. Under his guidance, Johnson has fought against Labour’s stereotype of him as a swivel-eyed Tory, backing measures such as the Living Wage and an immigrant amnesty.
 
Harri yesterday accused Boris’s campaign manager Lynton Crosby of nearly wrecking his re-election by only appealing to core voters: “That was almost the danger of the campaign, that he became more Tory at a time when being Tory seemed to be more of a liability than an asset.”
 
Despite his unassuming and amiable exterior, Harri is an effective and formidable operator. In four years he has transformed Boris Johnson’s image from national joke to a serious contender for the Tory leadership and Number Ten. This is a remarkable feat.

Transforming the image of News International and the Murdochs will be a far harder task, but if anyone can do it, then perhaps Guto Harri can.

Photograph: Getty Images

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the Mayoralty. He blogs mostly at AdamBienkov.com

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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