Not that long ago a friend sent me a yellowing magazine story about famous Fleet Street editors, with a Post-it note attached saying: “Those were the days.”
I saw what she meant as soon as I read about the late Charles Wintour, a former London Evening Standard editor with a flair for the withering memo. A note he sent to a young unnamed reporter who was begging to be sent to Israel in the 1960s began in a way that is now unthinkable.
“You are the fifth (and least qualified) person who has today asked to go to the Middle East,” he wrote. The paper had already dispatched an experienced foreign correspondent to Israel, he added, and unless shooting seemed imminent, it would be “insane” for a London paper to send anyone else. “I will bear in mind your request for an exciting assignment, but they do not grow on trees to be plucked by hungry young mouths.”
Reading those blunt words, I felt like an archaeologist, stumbling over an ancient artefact revealing the odd ways humans once dealt with one another. It is hard to imagine a manager delivering such tart advice in writing to an underling today, in a newspaper or anywhere else.
For one thing, social media has empowered employees to fight back in a way that was once impossible. Consider the public humiliation heaped on the boss of a British tech firm the other week after he interviewed a young woman for a job. She took to Twitter to say he had torn her apart in a “brutal” exchange that had left her in tears and made her feel as if she was in a room with an “abusive ex”.
The man quickly apologised, insisting he had never intended to hurt anyone. His company launched an investigation, saying it was satisfied no bullying had occurred but was “saddened” by the incident and would “reflect” on its HR policies.
I have no idea what went on in that interview, nor do I think there is ever an excuse for wanton bullying or witless abuse. Yet it is easy to imagine a modern-day Wintour suffering a similar fate and that is a shame, because his ageing memo contains a number of valuable lessons about working life.
First, a company does not exist purely to please its employees. It will always have wider aims and it is pointless to ignore them. I have always been in favour of the “don’t ask, don’t get” approach. But there is a corollary: do not be surprised if it does not produce instant success.
Second, Wintour was making it clear that ambition does not necessarily equal ability. No matter how frustrated thrusting young workers may feel, there are likely to be times when they will be overlooked for jobs requiring a depth of experience and maturity they lack. It is best to learn early how to deal with this.
Our tendency to confuse blunt words with unacceptable behaviour has had another sad consequence beyond the office. It robs public life of some of its most delightful moments.
One of my favourite politicians was the late Australian minister Gordon Bilney, who was turfed out at the polls in 1996. Freshly liberated, he wrote to a griping local official in his constituency to say: “One of the great pleasures of private life is that I need no longer be polite to nincompoops, bigots, curmudgeons and twerps who infest local government bodies and committees such as yours. In the particular case of your committee, the pleasure is acute.”
Bilney was a former adviser to the late Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, who once faced a persistent heckler on the campaign trail who demanded to know his views on abortion. “Let me make quite clear that I am for abortion and, in your case sir, we should make it retrospective.”
Alas, it is hard to think of many politicians today who would be capable of such remarks, let alone willing to make them.
By the way, if you were worried about the fate of that young Evening Standard reporter who was spurned by Wintour, don’t. It turned out to be Max Hastings, a distinguished foreign correspondent who went on to cover 11 wars, write more than 25 books and edit two Fleet Street papers, first the Daily Telegraph and then, as it happens, the Evening Standard itself. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019
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