This article was first published in the summer of 2019 as part of a 100 part series on the history of British Airways and its predecessor airlines, Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA. You can browse the full series of 100 stories in numerical order, by theme or by decade.
Earlier this year, BA had a rather public falling out with the Financial Times, ironically the one daily UK newspaper most closely associated with its target market.
Allegedly in response to a series of negative articles on BA and its parent company International Airlines Group, BA pulled the Financial Times from all of its aircraft and lounges.
Years ago, if a company was unhappy about its press coverage, rather than indulge in passive aggressive behaviour, its Chairman would simply call the editor or journalist in question and scream at them down the telephone.
As case in point is Lord King, former Chairman of BA who was notorious for having little patience with journalists.
Once under questioning at a news conference, Lord King was reported to have shouted across the room to a press officer “Hey! I pay you to talk to idiots like these.”
In the early 1990s, the Financial Times ran a series known as “My Office” in which Chairman and CEOs would give FT columnist Lucy Kellaway a tour of their private offices.
It was certainly a brave BA press officer that allowed Lucy Kellaway to visit Lord King’s office in St James’s – far away from BA’s offices near Heathrow, but of course close to Westminster, the private members clubs of Pall Mall, and many Central London embassies.
Copyright restrictions prevent a full reprint of the article, but here is a quick flavour:
Lord King of Wartnaby has just arrived back at his St James’s office from a long lunch across town. The 74-year old chairman of British Airways is late, and does not look in a particularly good mood. “Close the door, there’s a good man” he growls, a fat cigar stub between his lips, at his PR man. The message does not get through. “Jane” he bellows at one of the two secretaries who sit outside, guarding his office. “Close the door.”
Lord King then guided Lucy Kellaway through his private picture collection in his office:
“That’s me with the Pope. That’s me in the Oval Office with Bush, and me with Billy Graham. That’s me on holiday with Reagan.”
Lucy Kellaway would, some years later, write:
“Lord King was trying to tell me that he was important; but what he actually told me was that he was a shocking snob, name dropper and general pain in the backside.”
The original profile continues:
His is the old-fashioned style of management: he rules with charm of a pugnacious kind, pays no lip service to modernity. There are no computers in his room: “You have to manage, not let yourself be managed by computers. I’ve got plenty of people to tell me what computers do.” he says.
In addition to the two top secretaries, he has as a special adviser, Sir Francis Kennedy whose distinguished Foreign Office career King races through by way of introduction. “If I’m going to a foreign country, he organises for me to see the prime minister or president.”
It is on this level that King operates best. His contacts are impressive by any standards; he is a great fixer. By his side is Sir Colin Marshall, the chief executive who plays the professional manager.
The profile (bravely) concludes:
Lord King is not particularly articulate and tends to sound pompous.
“My office has reminders and comforts of a certain tranquility” he says, summing up its charms.
On the way out, he stops in his secretaries’ room to show off their word processors, which are neither new nor remarkable. He points out the four clocks showing the times in different parts of the world suddenly noticing that something is amiss.
“That clock is not straight” he says, lunging at it.
Behind his back, his secretaries exchange looks: exasperated, but not unaffectionate.
Lord King was reportedly so incensed at this portrayal he called both the journalist and the editor of the FT and threatened to withdraw all BA advertising from the paper. (Though it’s not clear if this threat was ever carried out.)