Ever wondered how David Brent, the fictional antihero of The Office, would have behaved had he succeeded in the business world? Well, the chances are that even he wouldn’t have been quite as obnoxious as Mike Ashley, the head of Sports Direct. Billionaire Ashley is currently being sued for £15m by a former associate.
Details of some unusual working practices have surfaced, including an occasion when Ashley is alleged to have challenged a young Polish analyst to a drinking competition at a local pub. The pair each “drank a dozen pints followed by vodka chasers”, says Rupert Neate in The Guardian. After the analyst threw in the towel, the victorious Ashley reportedly “vomited into the fireplace located in the centre of the bar, to huge applause”.
This isn’t the first time Ashley’s antics have thrust him into the public spotlight, notes Ben Marlow in The Daily Telegraph. During a press tour of a Sports Direct warehouse “he pulled a massive wad of £50 notes out of his pocket during a security check”. His “fondness for the high life” includes a single wild night in New York when he reportedly spent “£125,000 on alcohol, including £450 bottles of champagne and a £30,000 tip”. He is also said “to have once lost £1m in a casino and once played the pub game Spoof to settle a disputed £200,000 legal bill, which he lost”.
But Ashley doesn’t seem to have any regrets. While most businessmen would have been “petrified of the damage to their finances and their reputation”, Marlow’s colleague Hayley Dixon notes that Ashley “turned the air blue during an almost hour-and-a-half-long rant which included jokes about Obi-Wan Kenobi, Bond villains, and how fat he was”. Challenged on the amount of money that he had made from the 2007 flotation, he said that: “I was already fabulously wealthy. What do you think I did with the money in the morning? Went out and bought the neighbour’s house? I already owned it.”
There is, of course, a degree of hypocrisy in the faux shock at Ashley’s behaviour displayed by bankers and financiers, who are themselves no strangers to high jinks. Indeed, for many “in the upper echelons of British business” his real crime was that he didn’t know that “a coal scuttle was the proper receptacle” for his vomit, says the FT’s Jonathan Guthrie. At the same time, “many traders would shrug at conflicting claims over how much alcohol was consumed that pub night four years ago”, since “only a lightweight can recall how much he drank on an evening out”.
It’s true that Ashley, who “makes Richard Branson look as starchy as a 1950s country solicitor”, as The Sunday Times puts it, deserves credit for building his empire up from a single sports shop in Maidenhead. However, those tempted to defend him should note that, while their boss plays the fool in the High Court, his staff have to put up with working conditions that have been “compared to those in a Victorian workhouse”. Indeed, a parliamentary report claimed that “one member of staff had given birth in a lavatory, that others were publicly humiliated, and that some had effectively been paid below the national minimum wage”. In this case, boring and reliable beats “lively and colourful”.
Tabloid money… a crackdown on chuggers
• It’s no surprise Wimbledon wanted to ban the singing of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” (the refrain sung by the Labour leader’s supporters at this year’s Glastonbury festival), says Brian Reade in the Daily Mirror. “This is, after all, the epicentre of British snobbery, where unheard-of royals and minor aristocracy are given the best seats, and the only singing allowed is Cliff Richard torturing a trapped audience.”
They want you to feel privileged for “partaking in an ancient tradition with a glass of warm, overpriced Pimm’s in your hand”. And what a very British institution it is, says Reade. When seven players cut short their games through injury, they were accused of being shysters who had turned up on a false premise to collect their appearance fee, contribute nothing, then leave early. “It’s just an open-roofed House of Lords.”
• When Prince Charles begins his annual visit to the Castle of Mey next month, he is likely to be “fulsomely appreciative” of the improvements to his late grandmother’s Scottish retreat, funded by the Emir of Qatar’s family, the Al Thanis, says Adam Helliker in the Sunday Express. But with Qatar currently being shunned by the other Gulf states over allegations it has supported terrorism, Charles will have to deploy all of his diplomatic skills to remain above the fray – one of Qatar’s neighbours is Saudi Arabia, also a “generous supporter of the Prince’s causes”.
• “While the crackdown on charities’ obsession with pestering potential donors is admirable, the idea of fining repeat offenders is plain nuts,” says Nick Ferrari in the Sunday Express – the fines will be paid out of the donations from those people who are kind enough to give to the charity in the first place. “Surely, the answer is to fine the executives running the charity and let them take it out of their often very weighty pay packets.”