I’ve always believed that the first rule of politics is: if you don’t know the answer, say so. Much better to say, “I’m not fully briefed on that, but if you want I can get back to you on it later”, rather than trying to flannel. I remember that one of the East Midlands euro-candidates in the 1998 selection, asked a question about the Common Fisheries Policy, proceeded to dig a deep hole and fall into it. She came last.
What’s good for politics may also be good for business. So I think Tony Hayward was right, at his Congressional hearing, to say, in effect, “I don’t know”. As a Chief Executive, he shouldn’t be expected to know all the technical details in a highly technical business. And as the top man of BP, he shouldn’t venture personal speculation about the causes of the disaster, or the potential liability, while experts inside and outside the company are still studying the case. This is doubly so given the potential legal consequences.
So I think he did OK. Nothing he did could have rescued BP’s reputation in the US. But I think maybe he could have said a bit more in his own defence.
To start with, he should have stressed that BP is in effect a largely American company. 40% of the shares are owned in America. A big chunk of BP’s activities and earnings are in America. The offshore oil they’re recovering is largely consumed in America. Most of the executives and staff of the US operation are Americans. They didn’t change the name of the company to BP ten years ago because they were ashamed to be British. They changed it because BP had grown from a British company to a global company, with huge interests and commitments in the USA. And Obama’s insistence on using the old name and stressing the “British”, despite his protestations to the contrary, is a transparent attempt to deflect criticism by blackguarding foreigners. And of course the corporations sub-contracted to do the actual drilling on the Deepwater rig were American companies.
And he might have added: “Look guys. We’re doing everything we can to fix this problem, and we’re having serious difficulties. But we’re the only guys in the world capable of making the effort. President Obama can’t do it (someone suggested he needs a plaque on his desk reading “The Buck Stops Somewhere Else”). The US Coastguard can’t do it. The US military has admitted it can’t do it. So if you want it fixed, you’d do better to let me and my team focus on stopping the leak, rather than taking part in this cynical media scrum and fielding questions to which no one yet knows the answer. And if you want us to be around long enough to fulfil our obligations to the environment and to all those who are suffering because of the accident, you’d better go easy on the fines and the unlimited liabilities covering incidental consequences three and four times removed from the spill. If we go bust, you can wave goodbye to damages”.