Yesterday saw the end of the disastrous season of Guest editors. Let me contrast the two crucial interviews on Saturday’s programme.
The first was with the Chief Executive of the Environment Agency. The second was with the CEO of BP. Both were worthy guests. Many listeners would have crucial questions they wish to put to them both. Both of them required discussion of money as an important part of the debate.
A professional interviewer took on the Environment Agency. As you might expect he gave a much more professional interview, with more bite and more discussion of the contentious issues. Lord Browne, a clever and successful businessman turned politician interviewed a successor to his job as CEO of BP. It was a pathetic performance.
The first requirement of a good interview is to ask about the contentious matters that worry the audience. John Humphreys lighted on three of the most important things that annoy people about the current Environment Agency. He raised their misleading statement about the absence of their Chairman at the height of the flood crisis. He probed on how little dredging the EA does, leaving rivers blocked or with restricted flow. He put the point that the EA seems to regard habitats and “natural state” as more important than protecting riverside residents from flood.
Lord Browne did not ask about anything that a worried listener wanted to know. BP is one of the most widely held shares in the UK. Many listeners have pension funds, insurance investments or small private holdings in BP. The low oil price and the decline in profitability leads directly to fears for the sustainability of the dividend which is crucial to the share price. There was no question on the dividend. BP was an important pioneer of the N0rth Sea oilfield. Some think that at current oil prices we face accelerated closure of the remaining N0rth Sea fields, leading to further damage to our oil output and associated industrial and engineering activity. There was no question on the future of the UK’s oil province. Many employees of BP are worried about their jobs against the present background of much reduced cashflows from oil. There was no question about how much cost cutting BP should do to respond to the collapse in price of its main asset and product. The CEO of BP has traditionally been paid huge sums of money to reflect the scale of BP’s cashflow and profits. Will the CEO this year take a lead by cutting his pay substantially to reflect the much worse financial prospects? His pay was not mentioned.
The second requirement of a good interview is to be well briefed on the detail, to be able to respond to any dodgy defences put up by interviewees. John Humphreys was reasonably briefed on the aims and requirements laid on the EA, but clearly had no brief on the finances. He was told by the EA that it had spent £20 m on dredging, but that probably was over a two year period. He did not immediately point out that was a tiny sum, under 1% of EA spending over a two year period, and tiny in relation to the number of rivers that need attention. He did not even ask how many miles or river you can dredge for just £20 m, and how many miles or river the Agency is responsible for. He forgot that much of the dredging was the result of Ministerial intervention demanding dredging of the Somerset rivers after the disastrous inundation of the Somerset levels under EA policy. Nor did he get the apology the EA should make over the misinformation about the Chairman, though he did press the issue.
Lord Browne got through the whole interview with BP without mentioning or questioning a single figure. He praised the CEO’s attempt to answer the question of what will happen to the oil price, as he got through his own stint as BP’s CEO refusing to answer the most basic question affecting the business! The CEO of BP of course need a strong and clear view of the oil price, as all else the business does and plans depends on that single variable. If oil is going back up to $100 a barrel soon then they need a big exploration and development programme. If it is staying around $30=40 most of the options are uneconomic for new development. BP’s decisions on how much investment to commit to new activity will be important to jobs and activity in the UK. He asked questions as if he did not know the company, or wished to conceal anything too difficult. There was an exchange of management jargon about reorganisation without Browne asking why there was need of reorganisation and what the reorganisation was likely to achieve.
When interviewing about money matters can we have some basic questions asked well. How much does it cost? What do you get for the money? How much money have you got? How could you spend it better? Instead we had a lame question to the EA about how much more they might need, and no questions to BP about how they will get by with reduced oil income.