Why BT should have got Mandy naked

"Please enter your pin now, and don't pull the chain"

Yesterday BT sent a letter to Lord Mandelson threatening legal action if he follows through with his plans for broadband liberalisation, but today it lightened the mood somewhat with daring real-life tales of people conducting conference calls in their birthday suit.

BT handles roughly 15 million audio conferences a year. It has now conducted research which finds that 68 per cent admit they have dialled in to a conference call while wearing pyjamas: the most common colour or style is not recorded. But presumably those 68 per cent are among those people who are able to work from home, rather than those who take their conference calls at the office. Not least because nearly half say they have joined conference calls in their undies, and 20 per cent say they have joined a conference call starkers.

The telecoms giant said the growth in the use of conference calls (the number of people using BT audio conferencing was up almost 20 per cent year on year) has led to calls being conducted not just in the nude, but in some rather odd places, too.

The most popular place to hold a conference call was in bed (you see, the wearing of pyjamas is actually rather sensible, given the circumstances), followed by the toilet.

Why so many conference calls should be taken in the smallest room in the house is open to debate. When you've gotta go, you've gotta go, one supposes. But there is also the fact it's often the only room in the house with a lock. And with children, pets and partners around, people might want others on the call to have at least the illusion that they are focused on work, and not merely skiving off to play with the kids/dogs/PlayStation. (Another recent study found that one in four men has pulled a "sickie" in order to stay at home and play video games, the dweebs.)

With many respondents telling BT that they had been disturbed while on a conference call by babies crying, cats miaowing, dogs barking, or kettles boiling, you can see why so many people head to the bog when about to "face" their colleagues on a conference call.

This is not without its dangers, though -- many respondents said a conference call had been interrupted by the sound of a toilet flushing, which is surely bad call etiquette in anyone's book. Those taking the call in the smallest room could at least save their flush until the call has ended?

But BT is trying to make a serious point too, natch.

It says that in 2008, using conferencing helped it to cut out more than 700,000 face-to-face meetings and 1.4 million journeys, saving 53,000 tonnes of CO2. Which is certainly not to be sniffed at (and anyway, CO2 is odourless, unlike the atmosphere on many conference calls, judging by the research).

But perhaps all these naked, loo-based conference callers could soon become an endangered species, as the analyst firm Ovum says that 26 per cent of conferences will be held by video by 2012.

So perhaps, instead of sending Mandy a "letter before action" about his broadband liberalisation plans, BT should have got him on a naked conference call. It might have been our last chance to see whether he's a conference call flusher.

Jason Stamper is the New Statesman technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review

 

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories