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The corridors of power ...

Everyone knows that you must be careful when dealing with journalists. Yet it is surprising how often this cardinal rule is overlooked.

Martin Broughton, chairman of British American Tobacco, the name behind Dunhill and Pall Mall cigarettes, is the latest senior business figure to reflect ruefully on this bitter truth. During an interview with The Times, Broughton was asked what he would do if he caught his children smoking.

His response, he said, would be: ‘I would advise you not to smoke. But if you want to it is your affair. It is not good for you. You are better off not smoking.’ His remarks were seized on by anti-smokers.

Broughton has survived the initial fallout; others were less fortunate.

Gerald Ratner famously saw his career destroyed because of comments he made at the Institute of Directors in 1991 when he joked, people bought Ratners’ products because they were ‘crap’.

Sir George Mathewson, deputy chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, famously complained that the £2.5m bonus he shared with three other executives ‘wouldn’t have given you bragging power in a Soho wine bar’.

Sir Chris Gent, the Vodafone chief executive, fell into a similar trap during the bidding battle for Mannesmann. Gent adopted a mock-German accent to lampoon Klaus Esser, his rival at Mannesmann.

Supposedly describing his Christmas holiday, he said: ‘I haf skied a bit, I haf read zum German poetry, and tried to fend off a hostile takeover.’

Unfortunately for Gent, journalists were present, and his John Cleese-routine was soon headline news.

One of my favourites involves Leona Helmsley, whose husband owned the Empire State Building. Helmsley was jailed for four years in 1992 for fraudulently writing off $4m in personal spending against tax.

She had previously remarked: ‘Only the little people pay taxes.’

  • Jon Ashworth is business features editor at The Times.

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