A Damascene conversion for Lord Browne of Madingley?

This morning on Radio 4’s  “Today” programme we were treated to a rare pleasure. I would really like to say that is was listening to some sort of Damascene conversion on the part of the interviewee, but it was more like listening to the soundtrack of a rat, sitting on a lifeboat taking potshots at the sinking ship it had just escaped from.

We are talking here about Baron Browne of Madingly, one time chairman of Cuadrilla who tried and failed to bring fracking to this country, but who is now the head of Letter One,  an oil and gas company backed by Mikhail Fridman, a Russian billionaire.

You will of course remember that Lord Browne was, for some years, this country’s most ardent advocate of fracking. Indeed as recently as 2013 he vowed to defy environmentalists to invest “whatever it takes” – potentially running to billions of pounds – in the controversial UK “dash for gas”.

For a while he became almost evangelical in his language, and waxed lyrical about the necessary role of shale gas for our economy saying

“Now this is the moment – this is where our future lies, this is where we have to get infrastructure [built]. As a nation, we are searching for our future – our source of competitive advantage. I feel very strongly we should not discard this advantage. We did the North Sea very well. This nation can do extraordinary things.”

Fast forward a couple of years and we now listen Lord Browne telling a rather different story. It seems that all of the money Cuadrilla spent on PR and corporate responsibility programmes under his command was all wrong. Wasted, because nobody believes any of that rubbish. (Well, we could have told him that, couldn’t we?).  Furthermore he is no longer involved in fracking and the future lies in renewables and demand reduction and we have too much oil for demand anyway. Yes, he really said that.

Rats leave a sinking shipEnjoy this recording

and the transcript with commentary below it.

INTERVIEWER: Companies need to tell the truth. It would be nice to think they already do that. The former boss of BP Lord Browne says they’d find it easier to do so if they got rid of their corporate responsibility departments, if they ditched their PR machines, and they asked their managers to speak in an open, honest and ethical way. He’s written about it in a new book called “Connect” and he joins us here in the studio now. Good morning Lord Browne

[It seems our friend Lord Browne is here to sell a book this morning. I wonder if his PR machine contacted the BBC and offered an interview?]

LORD BROWNE: Good Morning

INTERVIEWER: Weren’t corporate responsibility departments set up in order to make people think that companies were being truthful and open and honest and doing good?

LORD BROWNE: Er absolutely but they slowly got divorced from the mainstream. And the point about companies is unless you’re connected to the mainstream of the company, which is provision of goods and services, and the things that companies do to make money, they slowly get divorced and these departments mostly are unrelated to the real mainstream of a company. So what I think is needed to be done is that all those responsibilities should be put much more in the hands of the managers who actually doing things.

INTERVIEWER: So get rid of that department. Get rid of the PR department?

[This is a tricky one isn’t it – Lord Browne is one of the most polished PR operators in the world. Not for nothing was he once known as the Sun King.]

LORD BROWNE: For.. Probably yes I think there is obviously some interface needed with people like you, but I think that, but there’s too much which is unrelated to the reality of what’s actually happening, and too little understanding of how companies are affecting er the different bits of society that they’re involved in.

[Well at least he is acknowledging that the way companies operate affects stakeholders beyond the investors. I have to say he seemed to show precious little acceptance of that when he was chairing Cuadrilla]

INTERVIEWER: … and do you think the public would react better, I mean because presumably one of the reasons you have a PR department is because you are a bit worried that a manager might speak as he speaks at home, might go off the cuff but do you think that that might actually do better for the company?

LORD BROWNE: Ah, I’ve noticed over time many of the press releases from companies really go straight into the waste paper basket. A lot of it is about er, I think you know, when something goes wrong you need to say so. Failure cannot be dressed up as a be.. a different form of success

[No he didn’t really answer the question did he? He just came out with some grand and airy statement about not dressing up failure as success]

INTERVIEWER: You’ve said in this book four of the worlds six most expensive social costs are facilitated largely by companies and you quote smoking, obesity, alcoholism and climate change. So I just wonder whether you’re suggesting that companies should be given more grief about those sorts of things? Whether it should be made harder for them, I mean where’s the driver coming from to stop that?

LORD BROWNE: So, I think the companies need to be much more involved with the implications of what they’re doing after all er, engagement with society, this is not an optional extra, this is er 30% of their value is at risk on average by not engaging with society , saying what they’re actually doing and the implications of what the company is doing.

[This is pretty content-free waffle from the good Baron isn’t it? I nearly gave up here but the good bit is coming soon. Promise … ]

INTERVIEWER: But you seem to be suggesting that actually companies are hated at the moment for the way that they are doing things

LORD BROWNE: Well they are certainly not liked and er many companies I’d say, many people in business, say it is but a trend. Companies, they are liked and then they are disliked and liked and disliked over history. The problem is I think the trend is getting worse over time, and as more and more companies are not liked by the public they’re at risk. They very much are at risk, and the general er the way in which companies are thought of , not as motors of er er success, motors of progress, but as of people who are doing things which are not good to society, that generally reduces.. growth.

[Yes, yes, people don’t like companies who behave badly or treat them like fools. Have you really written a whole book to tell us this? Get on to the good bit…]

INTERVIEWER: You are still involved in an oil company and in fact in a fracking company er but the…

LORD BROWNE: [Interrupting hastily] No longer the fracking company

[You really should listen to the audio to hear just how quickly Lord Browne leapt in there 🙂 Remember this is the man who 2 years ago was going to invest “whatever it takes” to get fracking in the UK off the ground. Now, it appears, he can’t disassociate himself from it quickly enough.]

INTERVIEWER: No longer, OK. Letter One which is the new oil business, I think you are chairman of it .. given where we are with the oil price at the moment , you have a long history obviously, running BP. Are you …what are your thoughts on what is going to happen because obviously at the moment we have oil prices that are er affecting, I suppose affecting …

LORD BROWNE: of course

INTERVIEWER: … the search for oil as well as our future energy requirements

[Yes, Lord Browne is indeed now at the helm of a Russian backed oil and gas company – presumably as he is so UK-friendly we can now ignore all the scaremongering about the nasty Ruskies and the insecurity of gas supplies from east of Europe?]

LORD BROWNE: The search for oil has been overly successful and so there’s far too much oil for demand at the moment. So the supply is very large. The demand is much weaker. And indeed people are generally using less oil for every unit of er GDP that they are producing.

INTERVIEWER: And it’s permanent?

LORD BROWNE: Probably yes. Over time we are finding different ways of er developing energy. Whether it’s green energy, whether it’s just simply using less energy to do what we used to do, this is something which Is a permanent change in the way economies are built.

INTERVIEWER: Lord Browne, thank you very much

LORD BROWNE: Thank you

[So it seems that we have no shortage of fossil fuels according to Lord Browne and in any case “over time” we will be phasing in renewable energy and reducing demand.  And this is permanent. Not a mention of fracking. Not one mention. Not one single word (except to deny any association with it). With a friend like this does the fracking industry really need any enemies?

Now then Lord Browne. Here’s a thing. Do you suppose that people’s distrust of companies might not be solely attributable to their crass use of P.R.?

Do you not think it might have something to do with the blatant hypocrisy of super highly paid executives who appear to think nothing of publicly changing their ethical and commercial positions to suit their current interests and who expect us not to notice?  Maybe you could write  a book on that – you have certainly provided enough material.

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