If you're a newswatcher, you'll know Jeff Randall, Business editor of the BBC. A redoubtable character who's rubbed shoulders with just about every business tycoon worth his weight. He's had the measure of most of them, but he hadn't reckoned on what happened when he ventured into the horse business. Not that there's any disgrace in getting a few lessons from John Magnier. There's nobody with his stripes in our game, who can't (or hasn't) learnt from the man. In Randall's case though, the education was of a different kind.
"Now that John Magnier, the Irish racing tycoon, and his friend, JP McManus, have increased their stake in Manchester United to 23 per cent, it's time that I came clean. Yes, Magnier, who owns Coolmore Stud, and I were once partners. Allowing myself to become involved with Magnier was clearly an error of judgment. As a result of my association with him, I all but lost my shirt. A business journalist of my experience should have known better. I blame the whole thing on a lethal cocktail of weak resolve and strong drink.
It was December 1996 and I was on what is known in the newspaper trade as a "jolly". As sports editor of the Sunday Times, I had been sent to the Sandy Lane hotel in Barbados to write a piece for the travel section on winter golf holidays. A tough assignment, but someone had to do it. The trip started well; too well. On the opening day, playing the golf course attached to the hotel, I scored my first and probably last hole in one. The ace sparked wild celebrations. My caddy did cartwheels down the fairway (he knew he was on a double tip) and one of my playing partners raced off in a buggy to urge the clubhouse steward to put expensive champagne on ice.
After 18 holes, I returned triumphant to the bar, where I duly bought drinks for everyone (getting that bill passed as expenses wasn't easy). As the Red Stripes flowed, a squat fellow emerged from the crowd, thanked me for the beer, and said: "Well done. We need another player for a four ball tomorrow, do you fancy joining us?" It was Robert Sangster, the man who had inherited the Vernons Pools fortune and spent most of it on racehorses, fine wines and lovely ladies (what was left, he squandered). Who could turn him down? Not me.
The next day, we met early. Sangster politely introduced me to our playing partners: one was a Scottish former golf professional, the other was John Magnier. I had assumed I'd be partnering Sangster, but instead he insisted on a blind draw for the pairings and I ended up with Magnier. This, I learnt soon enough, was to be financially catastrophic. When I heard Sangster and Magnier agree the stakes we would be playing for, I began to feel dizzy. When I saw Magnier tee off, I all but passed out. The big Irishman's swing, such as it was, had more moving parts than a fake Rolex.
While this didn't stop the great man lashing the ball miles, his shots were directionally challenged. Unable to cope with the pressure, my own pathetic game fell apart even quicker than normal and we were thrashed 4 and 3. In the bar afterwards, it was all very amicable. I emptied my wallet into the Scottish golf professional's pocket and he and Sangster paid for lunch. It felt like they'd won enough to buy the restaurant.
When it comes to breeding bloodstock, Magnier is widely recognised as little short of genius. But as a golfer, he is about as rewarding to his partners as Nick Leeson was to Barings.
A career in journalism is invariably marked by a series of milestones. Typically these include your first feature in a trade magazine, your first byline in a national newspaper, and your first libel writ, swiftly followed by your first grovelling apology. Last week, I passed a personal milestone of great significance, one that I had almost given up on reaching. After countless refusals, I finally managed to lure the chronically telephobic Michael Green, the chairman of Carlton, in front of a whirring camera. Better still, he answered all my questions and did so without insulting me.
This may not seem much of an achievement, but, believe me, it could turn out to be the high-water mark of my time at the BBC. Unless I secure a trilogy of exclusives with Lord Lucan, Robert Maxwell and Shergar, I can't see how I'm going to top it. Despite building a successful television empire from scratch, Green has always made clear that he'd prefer a morning's root-canal drilling to appearing on TV. That he finally cast aside his reservations reflects, I suspect, just how pleased and surprised he was by the news he had to deliver.
Sitting with him during the interview was his new partner, Charles Allen, the chairman of Granada. They are TV's Odd Couple; the human equivalent of oil and water. Yet, to their credit, they have forced through ground-breaking change. The merger of their companies will create a single ITV for England and Wales. Few thought that the Government would approve the tie-up without Draconian restrictions. But Green and Allen successfully argued that, far from damaging consumer choice, viewers would benefit because the merger would generate massive savings, some of which could be channelled into better programming.
Green and Allen have said there will be up to £55m of efficiencies. By my calculations, it could be considerably more. Certainly some in the City think so, which is why the shares of Carlton and Granada have shot up. In the past two weeks, their combined stockmarket worth has increased by about £1bn. Having been hypercritical of Green and Allen over the ITV Digital debacle, I now doff my cap to their powers of survival and recovery. They made happen an idea whose time had come, and in doing so restored much of the shareholder value that they had shot away in their ill-fated digital duel with BSkyB."
Courtesy of The Telegraph UK
First Published October 2003