Thick white sauce: Steve Bannon, Guy Hands and Andrew Neil — three studies in getting away with it
The media always finds excuses for the most mediocre and malevolent men.
[Adam Curtis voice]: This edition will tell the story of three very different men, with three very different careers who’ve consistently been allowed to get away with ‘it’ by the media. But what is ‘it’ and how did ‘it’ happen…
[start playing Something I Can Never Have by Nine Inch nails now]
Today’s episode was almost about Rishi Sunak’s Times interview — a conversation so tone-deaf it could be from an old X Factor bloopers reel — or BBC News’ continuing descent into a tabloid sewer (“Hear first responders and others react after Alec Baldwin shot director Halyna Hutchins with a prop gun” a tweet from its main Twitter account howled today)1.
Instead I was haunted by three even more grotesque visions…
1. Steve Bannon: A discarded Jim Henson Workshop prototype for Oscar the Grouch’s animatronic binbag nemesis.
2. Guy Hands: The man who sat-navved EMI inexcorably into the shit and is now conducting a static rehabilitation tour by flying interviewers out to Guernsey for tax reasons.
3. Andrew Neil, who having declared he would soon destroy the BBC with GB News’ fully-operational corporation-killing, anti-woke planet killer (“That’s no moon, that’s Dan Wootton’s giant swede head…”) is reportedly set to crawl back to Auntie, huge salary and ego intact.
… and how each of them represents a character allowed to get away with it by a media environment that allows mediocre monsters to be considered eccentrics.
On Thursday, the US House of Representatives voted to hold former Trump strategist and Breitbart boss Steve Bannon (imagine a pile of dirty clothes from the corner of a teenager’s bedroom brought to life by a particularly wayward warlock) in contempt of Congress for his refusal to attend and give evidence to the investigation into the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
The following day a new Facebook whistleblower told The Washington Post that Facebook’s Public Policy team — led by former George W. Bush administration official Joel Kaplan — defended a so-called “white list” that exempted Breitbart News, then run by Bannon, and other select publishers on the right and far-right from Facebook’s policies on fake news.
When a person in the video conference questioned this policy, Kaplan, the vice president of global policy, responded by saying, “Do you want to start a fight with Steve Bannon?”
The whistleblower’s claim echoes similar suggestions from an earlier Post report (How conservatives learned to wield power inside Facebook, Feb 2020):
Facebook’s quest to quell conservative criticism has infused a range of decisions in recent years, say people familiar with the company’s internal debates. These included whether to allow graphic images of premature babies on feeding tubes — a prohibition that had rankled antiabortion groups — or to include the sharply conservative Breitbart News in a list of news sources despite its history of serving, in the words of its former executive chairman Stephen K. Bannon, as the “platform for the alt-right.”
Kaplan’s response to the latest claims refers to that previous report:
No matter how many times these same stories are repurposed and re-told, the facts remain the same. I have consistently pushed for fair treatment of all publishers, irrespective of ideological viewpoint… there has never been a whitelist that exempts publishers including Breitbart, from Facebook’s rules against misinformation.
This is a great example of focusing on a specific word in a claim when you make a denial. Kaplan says “there has never been a whitelist” rather than there has never been any kind of special treatment for Breitbart because it leaves enough wiggle room for a whole tournament of Sumo wrestlers to slip through.
While the Post deserves credit for holding Facebook’s feet to the fire over its attitude towards right-wing outlets — which have a massive advantage on the platform — the media in general built Bannon up for years, turning him from a rather lucky schlub into Mephistopheles under a mountain of layered polo shirts.
With the ‘rise’ part of ‘rise and fall’ complete2, reporters are leaning heavily on the threat of Bannon facing criminal prosecution after having been held in contempt. But no one has been successfully prosecuted for contempt since the Reagan administration and if hacks weren’t so hung up on the drama of it all they would be far more inclined to predict the likely outcome: That Bannon gets away with it again. Just as Presidents avoid having their predecessors end up in prison, they also hate the precedent of senior advisors being sent down.
With Bannon having ducked federal fraud charges via a pardon from Trump in January 2021, the most West Wing-brained pundits are looking to a contempt of Congress prosecution to be his “Capone felled by tax evasion” moment. But I suspect there’ll be no Sorkinesque conclusion. Bannon will bounce back and the media that has profiled him time and time again will do it all again.
There’s an example of the kind of fawning, fascinated profile for a person who should really only provoke contempt in today’s Times. Guy Hands — Terra Firma founding private equity parasite and self-confessed rehabilitated roast potato addict — is interviewed by Charlotte Edwardes3.
The article, headlined ‘I’m scared of ending my life having not achieved’ and part of the promotion round for his memoir The Dealmaker, contains this weekend’s most maddening paragraph (so far):
[Hands] is insistent that he acquired EMI because he loved music, that it was the one emotional moment in a hard-headed business career. He was always “obsessed” with the Stranglers and the “anti-establishment vibe of punk”. He is a punk, really, if you think about it, if you can be a punk and also a billionaire financier. So, when he made himself CEO of EMI, he saw himself as being on the side of the artists, one of the creatives.
Nothing says “punk” like being a billionaire asset-stripper whose addiction to consultants during his ignominous reign at EMI was nearly as ruinious as his ravenous need for roast potatoes. Eamonn Forde in The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig puts the consultancy bill in the first 12 months of Terra Firma’s three year ownership (2007 to 2011) of the record company at £40 million.
While Forde writes in the prologue to his book that the common narrative that “Hands took three years to kill a 113-year-old icon” is “reductive” and the blame game game should start far back as 1996, Hands certainly did his bit to put EMI into a shallow grave.
But with his own book of revisionist history out next month, tax exile Hands— who lives on Guernsey not for the bracing sea air but the restorative qualities of its financial system — is able to present himself as a genius eccentric in The Times. Edwardes buys the self-portrait that Hands paints in The Dealmaker, describing the book as “the only book about private equity to read like a thriller” and Hands as “a mathematics whizz with a brilliant grasp of complex systems”.
But in amongst the discussion of Hands’ foibles, quirks, and conditions, there is a paragraph that says a lot more than it means to:
[Hands] says he beat himself up about EMI until at least 2019. He’s mostly over it now. But there is this one moment that plagues him: he was trying to sign up the Fire and Police Union in New York to one of his funds and a blue-collar worker sticks his hand up and says, “Mr Hands, you need to understand it’s our pension money. So please, don’t lose it.” As he’s telling me this, his eyes redden. “And I don’t quite burst into tears when I think about it, but I still well up,” he says. “I let him down. And I find that very difficult to live with emotionally. And I can’t give them each their $50 back. I suppose I logically could, but I can’t logically because I’d have to go back. But what I can do is be a better person. I can’t make up for that in other ways.”
Hands, still enormously wealthy despite losing billions in EMI and the aftermath, could — as he says — give that money back to the workers whose investments he lost but he won’t because he’d “have to go back”. Instead, we get a hippyish slogan (“…what I can do is be a better person.”) and Edwardes assuring us that “the principal motif” of his autobiography is “atonement”.
This is a common occurence in The Times: Psychic yoga of such intensity that the writer is practically a pretzel by the time they have twisted themselves hither and yon to make excuses for their subject. Edwardes writes that:
[Hands] admits to being a perfectionist, being a brutal taskmaster. He burnt through five ghostwriters for his book. The project took 17 years. He thinks he was paid a £10,000 advance, which means, in terms of pence per minute, it’s the least he’s ever been paid, including when he was stacking shelves in a Kent corner shop in the school holidays.
Typically the ghostwriter part is buried deep in the article and the fact that he, an investor with a personal net worth of at least £500 million, squatting in Guernsey to avoid tax, was paid a mere £10,000 advance is considered worthy of comment. People with dyspraxia, dyslexia, OCD and the other conditions which Hands has but whose bank balances are in the red don’t get this kind of gentle treatment from The Times. It writes of the terrible necessity of benefits cuts when it comes to them.
The last of our three white men who cannot fail is Andrew Neil. Following his departure from GB News, whose inevitable triumph he had pugnaciously predicted in pre-launch publicity, Neil is reported to be plotting his BBC return.
Having popped up on Question Time in the week his messy divorce from the diastrous attempt to televise Twitter’s trending topics went public, The Times and Daily Mail alike say Neil has been in talks with BBC Director General (and former Conservative Party council candidate) Tim Davie.
The Times’ Media Correspondent Jake Kantar reports:
The BBC director-general has held talks with Andrew Neil that could clear a path for the presenter’s return following his bruising ordeal at GB News.
The Times understands that Tim Davie met Neil in the weeks after he dramatically quit GB News and the pair are said to have enjoyed a constructive conversation.
While my suspicion is that at least one of Kantar’s sources looks like Andrew Neil in an even more preposterous wig than usual, I can also well believe that Davie, desperate to appease the right, would welcome Neil’s return. Kantar continues:
One person familiar with the conversation between Davie and Neil said the BBC director-general recognised that Neil had a “rough time” at GB News and wanted to check on his wellbeing. Other sources said a return to the BBC could suit both parties…
… Davie is keen to shore up the BBC’s impartiality credentials by hiring from all sides of the political spectrum. “He was the token right-winger at the BBC,” said one insider. “There’s always been an argument that Davie’s error in allowing him to leave could only be rectified by his return.”
The notion that Neil was the BBC’s lone right-winger buys into The Times’ company line — dictated from the very top by Rupert Murdoch’s burning Sauron eye — but it’s clearly horseshit.
Take a look at which publications big BBC names moonlight for while still employed and head to when they retire — The Daily Mail and The Times top the list — and what they write there. John Humphrys, Jeremy Paxman and Jenni Murray4, for example, did not just suddenly swerve to the right when their BBC passes stopped working.
In the week that Neil appeared on Question Time and called… uh… time on GB News for good, I concluded an edition of this newsletter with the following lines:
Andrew Neil’s inevitable return to the BBC should not be a surprise, nor should Gove’s continued presence in government — like a self-satisfied tick buried deep into the flesh buttock of British public life — because this is the society we live in. A place where right-wing men can never fail, where no embarrassment is big enough, no scandal toxic enough to topple them.
Whether its Hands (humanised as he pretends he can’t do anything help the workers he screwed), Bannon (pardoned, profiled, and presented as a mould-ridden Machievelli) or Neil (never challenged on the dark parts of his history — AIDs denialism among them — and set to return to the BBC despite publicly slamming it), these rich old monsters always get a second chance.
It’s likely that I’ll return to both of these topics soon.
Outlets were writing “the rise and fall of Steve Bannon” pieces as far back as 2018.
Who, as the partner of Robert Person, is probably quite used to deal with eccentric egotists…
And that’s just the Js.