Right man given job in wrong way

In the 18th century a whole political system was built upon it and they called it patronage. Nowadays, we’re a lot less forgiving: nepotism or ‘jobs for the boys’ are the more kindly descriptions.

That’s a bit of a pity really, because Bill Muirhead is an excellent candidate for the new post of communications director at Millennium Central, the body charged with running our end-of-century extravaganza in Greenwich. His skills as an account man are legendary; and few can fault the range and quality of his contacts.

Unfortunately, Muirhead’s appointment is premature. Or rather, it has been woefully mishandled, which puts him in an awkward position. The disclosure of his new role in Marketing Week last week has stirred up a hornet’s nest in the Labour Party. So much so that officials connected with the appointment are now rowing backwards as fast as the current will take them.

Last week, the post was a full-time salaried one that would have cut deeply into the time Muirhead could commit to M&C Saatchi (where he remains a partner) over the next few years. Now, despite its evidently demanding nature, the job has become a ‘voluntary’ one. Clearly, something does not add up here.

The Muirhead affair illustrates a broader concern about the Millennium celebrations: they are ramshackle and under-invested. A major part of the problem stems from the nature of its diffuse organisation. It is neither a government sponsored body nor a private enterprise, but both. An unfortunate consequence is that it suffers from the failings of both.

As a recipient of Lottery money, Millennium Central must be like Caesar’s wife. Its functioning is supposedly open to parliamentary scrutiny at every level. Which is why the appointment of Muirhead without public competition would be so very odd.

On the other hand, constant heavy-handed consultation is anathema to entrepreneurial initiative, which is what the whole project so sorely lacks at present.

Backroom cabals and covert appointments may mark an understandable frustration with the restricting conventions of public bodies, but they are no way to solve the problem. They merely create an atmosphere of intrigue and conspiracy which encourages political intervention.

In view of the forthcoming election, that may not be very sensible. The last thing Millennium Central needs is another wave of politically-influenced appointments. A more clearcut definition of its organisation, on the other hand, would be no bad thing.

News, page 9; Analysis, page 25

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