BBC Scotland, Rangers And Craig Whyte
It hadn’t been Rangers’ best week. On the Monday, they lost two directors down the back of the corporate governance sofa, including “Mr. Rangers”, John Greig. And three days later, the BBC broadcast some people saying not very nice things about owner Craig Whyte’s business dealings. Either side of BBC Scotland’s documentary Rangers: The Inside Story, Whyte threatened legal action over allegations it made – whilst counter-alleging a BBC institutional anti-Rangers bias – and joined the queue of football people suing the BBC, just behind West Ham manager Sam Allardyce, who “is going to sue” them… since 2006.
Yet history has been kinder to the documentary than to Whyte, and worth revisiting, especially for those who hadn’t watched it when Whyte threatened legal retribution – a group which included Whyte himself. Rangers: The Inside Story promised revelation, as the true extent of Rangers ‘situation’ has been a recent, piecemeal, discovery. It was an interesting, if melodramatic and flawed programme which concluded that Whyte’s future business strategy could also be ‘interesting’, if the bits of his past the BBC could find were a guide. The documentary was presented by Mark Daly, BBC Scotland’s ‘investigations correspondent’ and winner of as many Evan Davis lookalike awards as his mantelpiece will allow.
Daly charted the parallel ups-and-downs of Whyte’s business and Rangers’ football fortunes since 1988. The latter included a larger-than-expected array of Graeme Souness facial hairstyles and some very Whyte-esque clips of a previous thrusting young Scottish entrepreneur called… David Murray. The former included ambitious teenager Whyte, a “hot hunk” twenty-something Whyte, and seven ‘lost’ years in Monaco, serving a previously-unheralded disqualification from company directorships. Those seven years provided material to which Whyte took legal objection. But the point of the story lay elsewhere. Daly quoted from a 2001 court-case transcript, featuring a then-associate of Whyte, convicted fraudster Kevin Sykes, who said: “Whyte will… buy a stake in a failing UK business; it will be up to me to assist in re-structuring the business… to leave the unsecured creditors behind… legally, of course.”
There was “no suggestion Whyte was associating with…Sykes past 2001.” But Sykes’ scenario was relevant. Whyte would be the “only secured creditor” if Rangers entered administration due to a £50m bill for losing forthcoming tax cases. So administration “could be a clever strategy to leave the club debt-free, with creditors, (including the taxman), empty-handed.” Since Whyte told Scottish Television (STV), literally minutes before the BBC documentary, that Rangers might not appeal should they lose the cases, this “clever strategy” notion has seemed less far-fetched. As for the rest of the documentary, fears of a hatchet-job on Whyte, using a cast of disaffected ex-associates, were not entirely allayed.
Ex-directors re-iterated their long-held objections to the takeover. And a former Whyte employee told of the startlingly precise £2,997 she was still owed in wages, fourteen years after winning an employment tribunal against Whyte’s ‘Vital Security’ company. However, the source material was mostly from UK government documentation and investigation. And tales of Whyte’s early personal and business life (and evidence that the two were much the same), came from friendly ex-journalist and ‘Ulster Scot’ Terry Houston, author of the 1996 book Great Scots in business – the next generation. Houston portrayed Whyte as an ambitious, wealth-creating success beyond his years, aiming for “a personal fortune of £100m” and a reputation as “an entrepreneur of international standards.” His view that “at 16 or 17 (Whyte) was already a man with secrets” seemed tagged on to fit the documentary’s narrative. But in case this Jack seemed a dull boy, the documentary unearthed (and hopefully re-earthed immediately) a Daily Record “top 40 bachelors” list, (described more salaciously by Daly as ‘Scotland’s hottest hunks’ – but execrable either way) which featured “security boss millionaire” Whyte at number 27.
Whyte has attributed his business failings to the occupational hazards of venture capitalism. The programme acknowledged this but also revealed that Whyte’s ‘first’ business empire collapsed in 2000. He had been “a very large player in the security and plant hire business”, yet left a heap of “dissolved or liquidated” companies. To Daly’s probable delight and BBC licence-payers’ probable dismay, Whyte fled to Monaco. Naturally, Daly ‘had to’ follow – doing one piece to camera on exactly the spot where Whyte once posed for a photo – to discover why Whyte’s “UK business history seems to stop.”
The answer ‘because he left the UK’ would have saved on air-fares. But the whole truth was genuinely revelatory and the basis for the programme’s headline-grabbing allegations about Whyte’s “criminality.” On 13th June 2000, Whyte was “disqualified from being a director for seven years,” shortly after the semi-fugitive told a journalist he “had nothing to hide” – a phrase he used again last week. Two of Whyte’s companies were prosecuted for “failing to provide satisfactory accounts.” But despite this disqualification, Whyte was still allegedly “directing” companies, according to the very Scottish-sounding Robert Burns, the UK Insolvency Service (IS) ‘head of investigations.’
The IS investigated “plastics company…Re-Tex” after its winding-up in 2003 and believed “the company was being controlled by…certainly had the involvement of…an individual (Whyte) who was disqualified.” In case the significance of Whyte “controlling” Re-Tex was missed, Daly and Burns said he “could have been sent to prison for this.” But “controlled by” and having “the involvement of” were significantly different matters. And Whyte avoided prison, as the IS couldn’t persuade relevant prosecutors that he was in “control.” Whyte’s lawyers ‘confirmed’ that he only had a “small investment” in Re-Tex but didn’t explain why Whyte was “a signatory to the company’s bank account,” from which he withdrew “two sums of £100,000 intended to be paid to the Inland Revenue.” There was “no trace” of the Inland Revenue receiving the money,” Burns added. Burns also sounded rock-solid when claiming Whyte “appointed” Re-Tex’s auditors, the wonderfully-named ‘Mullett and Co’ and “suggested that shares in the company should be offered to the public.” But Whyte’s lawyers won this game of rock-solid top trumps with: “It is a fiction.” And the documentary, frustratingly, moved on.
It focused on Whyte’s ability to attract disreputable business associates. And Sykes sounded like an outstanding example of the species. Without a mullet haircut himself, alas, he was “behind” ‘Mullett and Co’ (which, it appeared “was, and is not, a registered firm of auditors,”). But, while a formal business associate of Whyte’s he “was an undischarged bankrupt, disqualified director and convicted fraudster,” which, in this context, is just about ‘the set.’ The documentary utterly failed, though, to explain what funded seven years of high Monaco living and left the still-disqualified Whyte £750,000 to spend on “the ancestral home of the Grant clan” on his 2007 return to Scotland. There were references to “numerous assets overseas” and…er…that was it…
Instead, Daly searched for an “insight” into Whyte’s new “business strategy.” Possibly not randomly, he picked an unsuccessful deal, an investment in warehousing group LM Logistics, which failed because the money arrived late, for reasons which the company’s MD curiously still doesn’t know. (Incidentally, according to his auditors, Whyte’s accounting treatment of LM Logistics was in breach of the 2006 Companies Act). Objections to Whyte’s Rangers takeover were revisited. “Maybe he wasn’t going to have the money to pay our bills,” suggested visibly pained ex-chairman Alastair Johnston, in a hybrid Scotch and American drawl. He said Whyte “wouldn’t tell us much about Liberty Capital,” his “designated…source of funding.” Stewart claimed that when he told David Murray “not to” sell to Whyte, Murray said: “too late.” And he was told, in a “very heated call from a gentleman at Lloyds” that “we’ll cancel (Rangers’) credit line tonight,” if the deal wasn’t done.
Fellow ex-director Paul Murray, whose objections stretched to a counter-bid for the club, was incredulous at Whyte assuming someone else’s tax liability: “It’s just not what you do,” Murray stuttered. And questions on Whyte’s future strategy produced only a stock statement about “the best interests and secure future of the club” remaining his “absolute priority.” Now the initial post-documentary furore has died down, Whyte’s frenzied media and legal strategy seems overblown. As Daly noted, Whyte was “asked to participate…several times” over the past “five weeks.” And his lawyers got more lines than most participants. More disturbingly, Whyte had not watched the documentary – even after his round of “exclusive to all papers” interviews the following weekend. And he appeared initially to misunderstand what its actual subjects were.
In a meeting with Rangers’ Supporters Trust, the day before transmission, Whyte expressed “astonishment that the BBC would produce a programme largely based on internet chit-chat and bloggers.” It is unclear what programme Whyte had in mind, although much “internet chit-chat and blogging” focused on the tax cases and their potential implications. The programme’s sources, as noted above, were ‘largely’ court and government papers and government officialdom, ‘largely’ on a different subject entirely. And it will be interesting to see precisely how Whyte believes he was defamed, as the allegations upon which he eventually focused were either based on government documentation or, in the case of his disqualification, true. Indeed, if there has been any misrepresentation, it has come from Whyte himself, who portrayed it as a “technicality,” the day after transmission. Subsequent legal opinions have dismantled this theory. But whilst proving the documentary’s legal flaws might be beyond the most expert legal minds in the field (and Whyte’s designated lawyers, Carter-Ruck, have that reputation), the more general flaws should not be overlooked.
Whyte is controversial for many reasons, which the documentary largely failed to address. It failed to nail his ‘criminal’ involvement in Re-Tex. It failed completely to explain what financed his seven-years in Monaco. And if, as Daly concluded, “it is what he does in the future that’s most important,” more than just Rangers fans will be wondering why so much time was spent on Whyte’s past. But it was a valid documentary to make – the sort of ‘due diligence’ investigation that Murray would/should have carried out, if he wasn’t so desperate to sell Rangers in the first place. Whyte has become the controller of one of the most important football clubs in Britain – certainly the most important in Scotland on current form. And he may have done so under near-false pretences, as the programme revealed his business history to be, at best, more complex than previously admitted.
A seven-year disqualification from company directorships is a serious matter, whether it was flouted or not. And Whyte appears to breach stock market rules stating that directors’ disqualification “by a court from acting in the management or conduct of the affairs of a company” requires disclosure. The documentary left too many questions unanswered. But it was right to ask them. And if it struck some as being a “muck-raking exercise”, that was partly because there was much muck to rake, whatever Craig Whyte thinks.
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