My Fleet Street battles with former BHS owner Philip Green

The regrettable demise of BHS and the role played in it by Philip Green has prompted a flood of memories for me – not all of them fond. I’ve resisted sharing them with Notebook readers until now, but with the publication of a damning report into the scandal by British MPs, I think it’s time I had my say.

There is a strong regional interest too. A few weeks ago, the BHS international retail business was bought out by a Qatari outfit, and the brand still has stores in UAE malls, under franchise with an Indian-owned business group.

None of these deals were done with Mr Green, who had earlier sold the distressed business to somebody who turned out to be totally inappropriate for a high street brand on its uppers. But it’s Mr Green’s stewardship of BHS over 16 years that has attracted the attention of British lawmakers.


In short, they accuse him of plundering BHS, and leaving an army of pensioners bereft to the tune of £571 million (Dh2.75 billion). He denies this, claiming that he and his wife Tina – the real owner of the business – put lots of money into it over the years.

I got to know PG – as his fans called him – well during my years in Fleet Street, and have to say one thing at the start: he was single-handedly responsible for generating more news headlines than any other businessman in the UK at that time. We should be grateful for that.

It began as a symbiotic relationship: he made the news, I wrote it. But it degenerated when the headlines were not so good. By 2004, I was already used to the early morning calls to my home and a foul-mouthed tirade over some minor point of coverage, but it was about to get a lot worse.

The crisis came when he mounted a takeover bid for Marks & Spencer. I was business editor of The Observer, a left of centre newspaper which did not take kindly to hostile assaults on British household names. I felt obliged to point out the flaws in PG’s bid.

The phone calls became a vicious round of insult-throwing, threats of legal action, angry demands to my editor to remove me from the story. It reached a crescendo at a drinks party where he and I had to be physically restrained.

A whole year passed where we did not communicate at all. Then, one New Year, in a spirit of seasonal reconciliation, I emailed him suggesting we bury the hatchet. He accepted, and asked me round to his Oxford Street HQ “for a cup of tea”.

PG was alone in his tennis-court sized office suite when I arrived. His desk was bare apart from an ominously thick file, which turned out to contain everything I’d ever written about him – with all my “errors” highlighted in yellow pen.

He intended to drag me over the coals like some erring schoolboy. So much for “bury the hatchet”.

The meeting quickly sank into a mutual exchange of abuse which I’m unable to repeat in any newspaper, let alone a decent family product like The National.

PG escorted me from the office via a two-man lift, where we stood eyeball to eyeball in seething animosity all the way to the ground floor. There he asked security to oversee my departure from the building.

“I don’t want to ever speak to you again,” he said. “Well that suits me just fine,” I replied, and those were the last words I had with PG to this very day.

As you might imagine, I’ll be following the rest of the BHS story with great interest.

But I doubt I’ll be getting any inside info from the main player.

fkane@thenational.ae

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