British Home Stores in administration
Image: © Yui Mok / PA Wire/Press Association Images

The media has got its coverage of the BHS scandal all wrong. Here’s why

As the media follows Philip Green's Parliamentary Committee hearing today over the collapse of BHS, the voices and experiences of the 11,000 employees affected remain underrepresented, says Joe Earle

"It's all a bit raw," says a BHS employee in Oxford Street. Knighted business tycoon Philip Green is in a parliamentary hearing today to establish the extent to which he is responsible for the collapse of BHS. Let’s just step back from this story for a minute, and let the numbers soak in.

A billionaire (Philip Green) sold a company he’d bought for 200 million pounds for a single pound to a former race car driver who’s been bankrupt three times. Even if Philip Green paid £280 million into an emergency pension fund for BHS employees, that’s still only 12.5% of the value of everything he owns, minus his debts (his net worth) – so financially, he’s probably going to be fine whatever happens. And yet 11,000 people are set to lose their jobs, 20,000 will see a 10% cut to their pension savings, and £36 million of taxpayer’s money is at risk.

Eleven thousand employees. The comparison that hit home for me is this: I have 1,000 friends on Facebook. BHS closing down is equivalent to all these people (pretty much everyone I’ve ever been friends with) losing their job at the same time, multiplied by 10.

Yet in all the coverage I’ve seen, the 11,000 BHS staff are just a number in a story about opportunistic and incompetent businessmen, an added example to illustrate the extent of the damage they’ve caused. But each of those 11,000 people has their own lives, hopes and struggles, and those aren’t being heard.

What’s it like to have the story of your redundancy played out across the news? I went along to the Oxford Street BHS earlier this week with the aim of finding out.

The first lady I asked looked at me kindly and said that they’d been told they weren’t allowed to speak with the press. “It’s all still a bit raw,” she said. I asked three or four others on different floors and got the same answer.

British Home Stores in administration
© PA / PA Wire/Press Association Images

“We’re not allowed to talk to the press.” If they were angry and upset with the management of BHS then they were just as suspicious and wary about me when it became clear I was part of the press. It seemed like they didn’t trust the press to represent their perspective on the story. As if they didn’t see any point in it being out there because it wouldn’t change anything and would only risk causing them more stress if they were to get in trouble. Like a mafia film in which no one talks to the police because there's a code of silence and deep mistrust of outsiders.

The first lady I asked looked at me kindly and said that they’d been told they weren’t allowed to speak with the press. “It’s all still a bit raw,” she said.

Large numbers of people seem to feel like they have no reason to or way of contributing to debate in the media. This matters more than ever when you’re talking about economic issues that affect everybody, yet no-one seems to feel qualified to discuss. The media is one of the main forums in which public political discussion takes place. It shapes political agendas and forms public opinion. The absence of the 11,000 members of staff (apart from as a statistic) from the debate about what went wrong at BHS and what we should learn means that we’ll only get a very partial public debate and we end up with an impoverished civil society.

Take pensions. The BHS pension fund was £571 million in deficit when the company declare bankruptcy. When a company files for insolvency, the staff are only entitled to receive 90% of their former benefits – in other words, 20,000 current and former BHS staff will lose 10% of the value of their savings. According to the Financial Times, 4,804 of the 5,945 pension schemes eligible for the Pension Protection Fund, a government-backed scheme to protect pensions, are in deficit, which came to £270 billion altogether at the end of April – putting thousands more people at risk. 

 

Large numbers of people seem to feel like they have no reason to or way of contributing to debate in the media.

In the coming weeks and months journalists and politicians will discuss in the media how to reform pensions to reduce this deficit, but I’m willing to bet that the people affected won’t be able to join in: because they won’t feel qualified, and more importantly, they won’t be asked.

As long as ordinary people like those I spoke to at BHS on Monday don’t feel like they have a voice in the media public discussion in the UK will continue to be missing a crucial element – the public. The media will continue to report on speeches made by politicians about how to solve the pension crisis and commentators will write about how to strengthen ethics in corporate governance, giving the impression of a vibrant public debate. But the reality will remain the same: a very small number of people continuing to talk to each other while everyone else is left to deal with the consequences.

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Reader Comments

  • WhereAreTheVikings

    What a terrible, terrible shame. Western Civilization nurtured capitalism, and now capitalism is destroying it. And these young people seem to welcome the invasion of their homeland. The media and schools have been very efficient in wiping out all traces of blood and soil.

    • prollawalllynotahumanoid

      Capitalism isn’t the problem. It’s corrupt politicians taking bribes and kickbacks from Globalists and the Chinese.

      • WhereAreTheVikings

        Maybe I should have said crony capitalism. Although Italians importing Chinese to make “Italian leather” shoes is not crony capitalism. It is capitalism, pure and simple.

        • prollawalllynotahumanoid

          That would be crony capitalism and globalism combined. They aren’t concerned with the affect their policies have upon their citizens, the health and welfare of their society and culture or their economy. What it isn’t is fair-free trade to further national interests.

          • WhereAreTheVikings

            I’ve always seen them as one and the same, but perhaps they need to be named individually, just to bring home the point.

      • WhereAreTheVikings

        But now that travel is so easy and borders are virtually down through H1bs and the like, theoretically you can’t blame capitalists for the pursuit of cheaper labor, although I do heartily blame them not being more patriotic than that. Perhaps the emerging nationalism will force them to voluntarily do what they should have morally been doing all along, and that is employing business practices that preserve their countries and nationalities. The government should be doing everything it can to encourage that, to the extent that small government should do anything but guard the borders and strictly, drastically, limit immigration.

      • Henry Lam

        It is China with its corrupted mindset affecting the world.

        • prollawalllynotahumanoid

          No it is not. Capitalism is the fairest and least corrupt system of all.

          Socialism and communism is based on authoritarianism, coercion and police intimidation. It has and always will be rife with criminality, bribes and kickbacks.

          Corruption can be anywhere but it is the very basis of socialism and communism.

    • Henry Lam

      The government is too weak. They do not understand the mindset of communists and how they educate their people. Those communist people are only loyal to their country and could be dangerous. The immigration law should only accept those who accepted multiculturalism and taught from a democratic education system. This virus events clearly has shown how stupid to take China as a friend.

      • WhereAreTheVikings

        The government is not too weak. Just weak-minded about some things.

  • Gabi Rodrigues

    For how many days can a country maximum close their borders to foreigners maximum? Like now, with the virus, everyone is using 30 days. Can it be more?