The extraordinary rhetoric of Sir Philip Green

Sir Philip, the retail tycoon who sold BHS last year, appeared before British MPs last week to answer questions on the collapse of the retailer.
Sir Philip, the retail tycoon who sold BHS last year, appeared before British MPs last week to answer questions on the collapse of the retailer.

Last Wednesday he was cross-examined for nearly six hours by British MPs, about the sale of British Home Stores (BHS), the company's luckless pensioners, his tax status and his character. I couldn't watch the whole thing as his boorishness got too much, so I read the transcript instead.

As I considered his words, divorced from the obnoxious sulking and harrumphing, an unwelcome thought occurred to me. Sir Philip Green uses language in the way I wish all business people did.

His sentences are short. His words are mostly one or two syllables. Sometimes a lack of formal education lets him down, and he says "hopefully" too much, but otherwise it is as close to perfect an example as I can think of.

In six hours there were no key deliverables, no reaching out to stakeholders, not even any value-adds. Instead, this was how he summed up his position: "We have run these companies properly... We could have taken the brands offshore and charged a royalty. We didn't. We could have routed. We haven't... Where we made money, we paid tax here."

For the past few years I have had a linguistic pin-up boy. His name is Wan Long and he founded Shuanghui, the biggest producer of meat in the world. In 2013 I read a piece about him in The Financial Times in which he was quoted saying: "What I do is kill pigs and sell meat."

I stared at these words, jaw slack with admiration. As a description of what a company does, I have never seen anything neater and clearer. Since then I have asked myself with every sentence I write: would Wan Long approve? If not, I rewrite it.

Last week Sir Philip out Wan-Longed Wan Long and kept it up all day. Clear language, I had thought, gave people nowhere to hide. It makes everything straightforward. And yet here he was giving one of the least straightforward performances I have ever seen.

Sir Philip, the retail tycoon who sold BHS last year, appeared before British MPs last week to answer questions on the collapse of the retailer.

This has brought on a crisis of worldview for me. Does it mean it does not matter if business people use language clearly or not? Is a man who talks straight no better or worse than one whose speech is a tangle of value-adds and going forwards?

Last week The Economist published a piece about how Donald Trump uses the simple, clear political language recommended by George Orwell to bad ends. Clear language may expose lies, but if enough Americans can't spot them, Mr Trump's "looseness with facts" and demonic style become an advantage.

With Sir Philip, the same does not quite apply. He wasn't talking to a credulous American public but to suspicious MPs. And he was not lying.

My evidence for the latter point comes from Sir Philip himself. "I am not a liar," he said - twice, before going on to say "I'm not going to tell you lies", "I am not going to tell you any lies" and "I don't tell lies".

In case the penny still hadn't dropped, a further nine times he prefaced remarks with "to be honest with you" or "to be perfectly honest".

It then occurred to me that the best way to make sense of his character was to search for the most popular words and phrases. One of his favourites is "respect" - no fewer than 39 times did he claim to have respect for his questioners. Yet seldom in that committee room has less respect been shown. Sir Philip asked his own questions, patronised the women, told one MP not to stare and another that he looked better with his glasses on.

His next most favourite word was "blame". In the course of his evidence, Sir Philip declined to blame other people 21 times. "It's not my style to blame anybody else," he said, while at the same time doing just that. As he stuck the knife in, he praised his victims, talking of a "lovely journalist" or "she's a lovely lady" while fingering the person running the BHS pension fund.

Yet the most popular phrase of all was "I don't know". In the normal course of events, chief executives never admit to not knowing anything, for fear of looking weak. Instead they hum and haw and look pompous and pretend to be all-knowing at all times. When in the dock, not knowing becomes your safest bet. There was no limit to what Sir Philip did not know last week. He uttered the phrase a full five dozen times.

So why did he decide to live in Monaco? "To be honest with you, I don't know. Someone suggested it." There you have it. A hat-trick. Honesty, ignorance, and nailing someone else.

Sir Philip's words are good. The syntax is great. But the repetitions tell you everything you need to know about his character. And what is that?

With the greatest respect to Sir Philip. He is a lovely man and it is not my style to lie or be rude. But to be perfectly honest (and knowing that our libel lawyer - and his - will be reading this), respectfully here is my answer: I don't know.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2016, with the headline 'The extraordinary rhetoric of Sir Philip Green'. Subscribe