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BBC Young Apprentice – Corrupt and Corrupting (A personal view)



James McCullagh


BBC – The Young Apprentice

The protesters camped outside St Pauls are trying to stimulate a debate about business and the framework of free market capitalism within which it operates. Whether you regard this as an issue of ethics, politics, economics, social equality and justice, or even a combination of them all, it is hard to disagree that these are matters that directly affect people’s lives and livelihoods. They are important.

If, as happens only too frequently, this debate is conducted entirely in abstractions – freedom, equality, rights, justice etc, the results are almost entirely sterile: because we all believe in these abstractions but disagree profoundly about how to pursue them and what it would mean to achieve them. The right to protest collides with the right to visit St Paul’s unhindered; the freedom to own the wealth one generates conflicts with the justice with which national wealth is distributed to the benefit of all. And so on.

To focus on a profound element in this debate one can learn much from the Apprentice franchise. This programme is shoddy and tawdry enough when the participants are supposedly adults, however much this assumption has been belied by their often stupid and frequently unpleasant efforts to win a dog-eats-dog competition.

Exploiting this ethically vapid concept as this programme does, with even younger people – here mostly 16 is in my view, not to put too fine a point on it, both corrupt and corrupting. Too much? OTT? Well let’s take two little pearls of wisdom from the current budding entrepreneurs. Both comments are published and therefore publicised, in writing by the BBC. Prominently.

James McCullagh (17)

“I have integrity, but when winning gets in the way of integrity, integrity goes out of the window.”

McCullagh and his fellow ‘entrepreneurs’ are of course encouraged by the Apprentice producers into bombastically pronouncing this drivel; as incoherent as it is shameful, and then to act it out. One can’t help feeling that, as seen behaving on the programme, this deeply unpleasant young man, would better spend his time with teachers who might by example and education, first help him to acquire a meaningful understanding of what ‘integrity’ actually means, let alone perhaps developing the beginnings of rudimentary standards of socialisation and respect for others. Instead, as oblivious to other people’s ideas as he is indifferent to them, Master McCullagh is induced by a £20,000 prize and the holy grail of today’s youth – a weird kind of undeserved celebrity, to be as outrageous as possible. Because it makes better TV.

Running McCullagh a close second, this from 16 year-old

Harry Maxwell

“In terms of my intellect, self- motivation, confidence, and business instinct for my age, I am unrivalled. I have a pure entrepreneurial gift waiting to be unleashed and harnessed.”

Where one wonders have Harry M’s parents been? What kind of teachers has he had that they have not challenged or at least questioned this hubristic hogwash. Or could it be, as this egotistical, unreflective bull-shitting is almost de rigeur for Apprentices, that this is actually regarded as laudable self-confidence? How can ‘arry boy have got thorough 16 years of parenting and 10 of full-time education without ever acquiring an inkling that self-confidence without self-knowledge is just useless hot air with the longevity of an involuntary fart. And just about as welcome.

Come on Zettel I hear you say – it’s just a TV Programme – lighten up. Yes, but it encourages this kind of behaviour which is reinforced week in and week out by Alan Sugar; these excesses almost always defeat more  civil and civilised personalities and attitudes; and is driven by greed for £20,000. That’s why I argue it is corrupting.

That the Apprentice provokes and pays young people to behave ruthlessly; to lie, back-stab, evade responsibility and rubbish other people, is I think undeniable. As such it seems to me to deserve the description of corrupting.

In what ways do I believe The Young Apprentice corrupt? Well among the meanings of ‘corrupt’ are – ‘tainted’, ‘debased’, ‘lacking integrity’. This exploitative, highly profitable TV product  is manipulative, as the producers know the more outrageous they can encourage these young people to be – the better, the more saleable their product is.

Right at the heart of The UK Apprentice franchise is Lord Alan Sugar; just as the original US Apprentice, had that well known ethicist Donald Trump at its core. Over 7 series and now the second Young Apprentice, it is pretty clear what Sugar’s attitude to business is: again and again the thoughtful, quietly competent are stuck with loud-mouthed, aggressive, egotistical colleagues and usually it is the former who get fired – as this week. If you say the last series adult winner, Tom Pellereau was an exception to this general rule I’d partly agree but point out that Tom had established a business relationship with major US retailers like Wallmart. Mr Sugar is no fool: and he made clear he wasn’t interested in Tom’s products produced for The Apprentice.

Most revealing of all however was the result of the 1st task in The Young Apprentice: to produce their own range of frozen sweets: essentially ice cream and frozen yoghurt. First, neither team ‘failed’. The Boys made about 430% gross profit while the girls made 540%. More surprisingly the boys sold virtually all of their ice-cream, nothing was wasted, whereas the girls bought too much and threw a lot away because of lack of organisation. So how did the girls bring off this magic trick? Selling within a theme park where as all parents will know, prices are usually a rip-off, the girls went native. Without a moment’s hesitation, to overcome their balls up with the wasted materials, they just ripped off their customers to victory. Charging extra for each element – ice-cream, flavouring, sprinkles and even the cone, these brilliant entrepreneurs, who couldn’t add up, multiply or divide and hence threw away good ingredients, were selling modest sized ice-cream cones for at times £4.28 and £3.80 a pop. They were putting extras on for the children without asking the parents – a clever little ruse for which Nick Hewer of course had a nice piece of euphemistic business jargon – ‘Up-selling’. I take it this bon mot means selling something for far more than it is remotely worth. Right on. How entrepreneurial is that?

When one mother, after her child had innocently had 2 scoops, a cone and a few sprinkles, was called over to pay – her protest at £3.80 was somewhat undermined by the fact that her child was already half-way through it. But you have to hand it to the girls – not an eyelid was batted. Another unwitting parent stumped up £4.80.

And so to the boardroom: the Girls were complimented and rewarded for outrageously ripping-off their customers, mostly children; and deviously tricking money out of hard-pressed parents. The boys, who had made a good profit, one might say a fair profit, wasted nothing and found an innovative method of selling it, ‘lost’. And why? because they didn’t charge enough at £1.50/ cone.

The underlying message here is clear: nothing, absolutely nothing matters except profit. If you can sell cheap rubbish for high prices then you’re an entrepreneur. If you can con people into paying far more for something than it is remotely worth, then you are entrepreneurial.

I know many will say I’m being naïve: that if people can be persuaded to pay, any price is OK. It’s just good salesmanship. The underlying message in the  Apprentice Young and Old is always the same: aggressive salesmanship can make good money out of crap. Concepts like offering the customer good products, ‘value for money’, reliable service etc always plays second fiddle in Sugarland to pushy selling: when you are caught out, as the girls were, then just tough it out. Follow the McCullagh philosophy.

We can see therefore the natural affinity between the kind of characters they first recruit onto The Apprentice and the screw-the-customer-for-all-you-can business philosophy they are pressured to follow. In this task – the least competent, wasteful, more disreputable team won and was lauded, praised and rewarded for it. And the lesson drummed into the boys? You didn’t rip-off your customers enough.

That is the kind of ethically blind, socially destructive, ecologically wasteful attitude to business, that when applied in major corporations generates so much anger and indignation in ordinary people that they feel moved to set up protest tents in the yard of St Pauls.

There are plenty of thoughtful, successful business people around who know the simplistic Sugarland, Apprentice world is not the only way to do business. The principle the St Pauls protesters are trying to advocate  is for the ethics of business to be internal to the practice: not what you do with the wealth created; but the values you will respect and adhere to in the way you create it. You will never see a glimmer of that approach or the kind of people who would respect and understand it on The Apprentice – Young or Old. That is why the programme is an ethics-free zone; has distorted and disreputable values; and is therefore in my view corrupt and corrupting.

I can’t and therefore shan’t watch these be-suited Sugarettes jump through the hoops of cynical TV producers. They aren’t the best of our young people – not by a long chalk: and their parents and their teachers should be encouraging them to realise the potential they do have on something worth a damn, including a study of real business, instead of competing with one another to be spivs who don’t give a sh*t about anyone but themselves.

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