The wise king always favours frankness over flattery


Just as the accomplished prostitute makes her client believe that his attraction, rather than his money, secures her love, the astute adviser can make his client feel the conviction in his voice. Generally, it is better to be the flatterer than the flattered.

The judge had been shuffling his papers for an hour in undisguised irritation. Finally he told the claimant’s barrister that he had heard enough argument and adjourned for lunch. I caught a snatch of conversation in the corridor outside; I imagined the unhappy client complaining that time and money had been wasted on a hopeless objection which could only alienate the court. But the plaintiffs were thanking their advocate for the tenacity with which he pursued even the most unsustainable points in their case.

I realised why the barrister was one of the best-paid lawyers in the country, despite his apparent lack of forensic skill. His success lay not in convincing the judge, but in pleasing his client. And when the case failed, the plaintiff would leave the court more convinced than ever that his complaint was justified.

There have always been two kinds of courtier. The trusted adviser defends his employer fiercely in public, but tells the truth in private. The sycophant says the same inside and outside the bedchamber: he congratulates the king on his wisdom, rants against his enemies and always predicts triumphs to come. Both have a role – relentless honesty is more than any human being can stand – but the wise king will rely more on frankness than on flattery.

Today, the cheerleaders are ascendant. Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s top political aide, is described as the world’s third most powerful man; Alastair Campbell, former press chief to the British prime minister, chaired meetings to review information which would take the country into war. The traditional public servant who tempered his master’s enthusiasm with realism is squeezed out of the purring ranks of political advisers. The stern bankers of yesteryear have given way to a new generation of management consultants and investment bankers. Their claim is to make the impossible happen: your idea delivered, screams the advertising.

In such a world, Mr Bush can imagine himself a great statesman, WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers can be feted as a business genius. In return for large fees, or compromised authority, modern leaders can be surrounded wherever they go by the reassuring sound of whatever they want to hear.

Accountants who once called themselves professional advisers now describe themselves as business advisers: their role is not to ensure the proper conduct of their clients’ affairs but to promote their visions. Solicitors gather groups of victims, or imagined victims, to demand money from governments and companies. The policy holders of Equitable Life, the shareholders of Railtrack, the creditors of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, those whose loved ones suffered heart attacks while taking Vioxx: all have good reasons to be upset even if there are only the flimsiest of legal arguments for holding others liable for their misfortunes. Such individuals are vulnerable: they are so thrilled to find people who are on their side that they are blind to the reason.

When loyalty dominates integrity the results are not always unsuccessful. The bullying of spin doctors can secure more favourable reporting, the threats and blandishments of chief executives can influence the assessments of fawning analysts and compromised business gurus, the costs of litigation may lead defendants to settle even though their opponent’s case is weak.

Yet reality breaks through eventually. It is, perhaps, a coincidence that the BBC launches an expansive production of Bleak House at the same time as the costly litigation over Equitable Life, BCCI and Railtrack ends. But Dickens’ theme – that litigation generally benefits lawyers more than clients – is true of 21st-century reality as well as 19th-century novels. When my case ended, the client walked away with a large bill and the barrister with a large fee. The activities of Mr Rove and Mr Campbell ultimately compromised the interests they did so much to promote. Mr Ebbers faces the prospect of a life in prison but the banks that supported him prosper still. It is generally better to be the flatterer than the flattered.

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