When I was a young journalist I had a boss who got so angry one day that he tried to kick a metal bin and instead got his foot stuck in it.
Such was his habit of regular and wholly disproportionate explosions of temper that his subsequent hopping around the office floor did not even register as an unusual event. The slightest thing would set him off: a headline he didn’t like, a page design that wasn’t to his taste, that the exact photo he wanted to use didn’t in fact exist.
On one infamous occasion Nasa announced that a probe had got close enough to Mars to take the first close-up images of the planet’s surface. He was excited by this – he liked outer space – and cleared acres in the next day’s paper. Late in the afternoon the picture editor approached him, wincing in anticipation. “There’s a problem,” he said. “First, the images have to be sent back from Mars. When they arrive on Earth they’re in the form of data, and the images have to be rebuilt from that. They then have to be shared, analysed and cleared for release by the Nasa bureaucracy.”
Wisely, he took a step back. “What I’m saying is, the photos won’t be with us for another week.” Our editor went rigid, and his eyes did that filmy thing a shark’s do just before it attacks. “I don’t want excuses!” he bellowed, “I want PICTURES FROM MARS.”
Let’s pass quickly over the days he used to bring his Rottweilers in to patrol the office and simply accept that this may have been a sub-optimal working environment. Of course, we were told that it was character-building. We should suck it up – he was brilliant and we would learn from him. What we were was miserable and scarred. It was also decades ago, an era in which the tyrant-boss was not just tolerated but often encouraged.
The workplace, in my experience at least, has changed considerably. Bosses can be arrogant, unpleasant and overly demanding, but there is a line. Even in newspapers.
The memo clearly didn’t reach Alex Salmond. As first minister he was the most pathetic kind of swaggering bully who expected everything and everyone to revolve around him and serve his needs. In 2014 I printed a story told to me about a visit he and his entourage made to the canteen at Holyrood. My source said their eyes nearly popped out when “upon sitting down, the First Minister regally held out his hands. An accompanying flunkey whipped out some hand sanitiser and reverently smeared it onto the sacred mitts of power.” This was picked up by another newspaper, which told a further tale – “which we have never quite believed” – of Salmond’s shoelace coming undone: “Without so much as a click of the fingers an aide knelt down and retied it.”
As usual, the cybernats unleashed their poison arrows of scorn and loathing. This was a Unionist smear. The first minister wouldn’t behave like that. He was a hero. I had made it up.
At the weekend, the Sunday Times reported that the inquiry into Salmondgate, which is due to report today, was told privately last week that the ministerial floor under the former FM had been “like the Wild West”. Staff were expected to knot Salmond’s shoelaces (believe it), straighten his tie, apply hand sanitiser (ahem), comb his hair and remove dandruff. Women were stopped from working alone with him in Bute House. Staff were pressured to keep schtum about all this, in case it affected the independence referendum.
So there we have it. An ego out of control; a creature who saw eminent, highly-qualified people as little more than servants and bit-part players in the Alex Salmond story. This is the reason I’ve struggled to access much sympathy for him over the past few years. There is a type of individual who should never be allowed to have control over others. Unfortunately, this is often the type that is most likely to achieve a position of leadership – driven by self-regard, contemptuous of and willing to trample over what they perceive as the less-talented, enabled by boards and shareholders who care about little beyond the bottom line.
In their wake they leave trauma, ruined careers, and disillusionment. Remember the zillionaire, macho banker-gods who crashed the global economy in 2008? One of the benefits of the rising female boss class is that – again, in my experience – they prefer a different office culture. We really can do better. It’s time the bullies and the brutes were consigned to the dustbin.