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Black Sky Thinking

Oh Happy Days: A Personal Recollection Of Working For Jeremy Hunt
Luke Turner , June 2nd, 2012 17:44

Ten years ago, Quietus ed Luke Turner worked for Jeremy Hunt's educational publishing company. As the Secretary Of State for Culture, Media & Sport gives his evidence to Leveson, he remembers the fun times there

You learn a lot about someone when you work with them every day. I'm sure my colleagues at The Quietus have gained a pretty good idea of general aspects of my character – various insecurities, organisational ineptitude, inability to remain silent for long periods of time – over the past few years. I always know when my learned colleague John Doran is entering a phase of red mist by the tone of his grunts, and the machine gun of his keyboard.

So in the three years I worked for Jeremy Hunt, from the September of 2000 to the same month of 2003, I think I got a pretty good idea of what was going on. I was an employee of Hotcourses, a company Hunt owned with an old friend, Mike Elms. Hotcourses was (and is) an educational publishing company devoted to producing course guides and lists – if you live in London, you might well have booked a week's flower arranging or Pilates through it.

I began work at the company's offices in Hammersmith, London, gaily full of beans at being in gainful employ doing something that I could believe in, writing about and advocating further and higher education. The enthusiasm was short-lived. This was no writing job, but an admin role looking after the enormous, unwieldy spreadsheets of courses sent in by colleges, along with their print advertisements in the various Hotcourses guides. Our task was to format these messes into the Hotcourses format for digital transfer into the printed system and vast web database. It was, needless to say, a thankless one. Now, I am fully aware that this is by no means a diabolical job. There are millions worse in the world, and many poorer paid, though the Hotcourses wage was a pretty bracing one to live off in London, even a decade ago.

What made it the worst three years of my life was the working environment, and the expectation put onto the staff by Hunt and the other managers. When a deadline approached, we were expected to work late into the night for no overtime or recompense. Rarely were we thanked for our labours. There was a general air that we should be grateful for the remarkable opportunity that this endless admin offered. There was certainly a different attitude toward employees who'd been to private school, or Oxbridge, than to the rest of us. In such a high pressure environment yet producing such mundane work, stress levels rose. I know of good friends and colleagues who suffered near nervous breakdowns from the experience of working in such a vampiric, morale and confidence-sapping operation. Everything was secondary to the operation of the business.

Already reported in Popbitch (on the day of the 2010 general election) was an incident on September 11, 2001. Now, my memory – and the source for Popbitch, which wasn't me – tells me that it was Hunt who, when we were listening intently to the radio reports of planes smacking into the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, came into the office to demand that we turned the volume down as it was affecting the sales team's telephone calls. Whether it was him or not, it speaks volumes about the management culture of the company.

This was not a one-off. For instance, I distinctly recall one presentation after a period of company expansion. All of us, old stagers and new recruits, were gathered together in front of a PowerPoint screen. On it were projected smiling photographs of various members of staff, the heads of sales, IT and so on. The company had recently outsourced much of the data entry work to a centre in India. Jeremy Hunt, smiling away in that peculiarly insincere, head-bobbing way that you've all seen on the news, was leading. We gasped in horror as our "new colleagues in India" were introduced: there glowed a slide that featured row after row of the same cartoon clip art Generic Brown Person, sat behind a computer.

When Sir David Frost visited the office (with a view to becoming a director, a position he resigned in 2004) there were no levels of obsequy to which the Hotcourses management were afraid to stoop. For instance, our normally militantly anti-smoking bosses were only too happy to proffer a fancy ashtray, and allow the wizened old broadcaster to puff merrily away on his cigar in the meeting room. There are many such stories, some far worse, that I would dearly love to share.

It was not a happy environment in which to work. One former colleague writes, "For me it was just the whole cumulative effect of all the insensitivity, arrogance, greed and goggle-eyed sociopathy that did my head in over two and a half years."

It was quite a shock when, at one of the interminable Monday Morning Meetings, we were informed that Jeremy Hunt would be standing as a Conservative MP. We were surprised, not only because we were amazed that anyone would vote for this affable lummox, but also that he'd never really displayed much in the way of political enthusiasm in the past. As a former colleague relates, "He once said to me during the fledgling stages of his political career, 'Well, both my parents are conservative so it's a pretty much a foregone conclusion I would be too'." The holy hand of patronage had plucked him out to replace Virginia Bottomley in the kind of safe Surrey seat that the Tories wouldn't even able to lose if their candidate was caught, pants down, discussing Uganda with the gardener.

We of course followed Hunt's progress with interest. To his credit, he seemed to be doing some decent work on disability issues in various debates in the House. But his appointment as Shadow Culture Secretary could not help but raise eyebrows. This was a man who, whenever he tried to engage with you and discuss your interests in music, art, literature or film, would glaze over and stare at a point somewhere in the middle of your forehead. Hunt's interests seemed more to lie in Latin dancing, and especially Salsa, or in his fascination with China and Japan.

In interviews, Hunt seemed like a lightweight, unsure of himself in front of the camera. You only have to tune in to the Leveson live stream to see just how inept Hunt is. This was one of the new Conservative Party of 'Dave' Cameron's great white hopes? When the phone hacking scandal began to break, it seemed more than likely that he would become unstuck. As today's revelations at Leveson of worried texts back and forth seems to show, this was a man who was keen to please everyone as he floundered around waiting for blessing from the big boy in the playground, George Osbourne.

Those three years working alongside Hunt give me an idea of the kind of government we currently have, run by these former public school boys who have barged their way through life not through merit or ability, but by birth. You would not have picked out Jeremy Hunt as a brilliant intellect, a powerful speaker, a man with any convictions other than those he was born with. This is the impression one also gets from the rest of his colleagues in the Conservative party. It was bad enough having him as a boss – the fact that he and his chums are running the country is far, far worse.

As for me, I ended up quitting Hotcourses after those three years of mind-numbing work, with nothing set up to go to except a vague hope to revive an ambition of doing some music journalism. Working as waiter in a kebab shop that had delusions of grandeur, which is what I did next, was far preferable to enduring any more of that company's nonsense and appalling way of treating its employees. Perhaps things have now improved – I was surprised to see them featured in a list of the top British companies to work for in a recent Times (prop. R Murdoch) poll. One particular tale from a recently-former employee suggested that the company didn't necessarily deserve the gong, though of course Hunt is no longer involved.

In many ways, my time there was what inspired me to get my arse in gear and actually get on with writing, so never again would I have to be in a similarly dispiriting position. Many others left too, and are now doing great things. Whenever I've made reference to my time there on the Quietus Twitter feed, replies and direct messages have appeared from employees former and present, all with a tale to tell of their experiences working for Jeremy Hunt, and not all of them able to speak publicly for fear of references and future employment prospects. Not having to think about that sort of thing, I hope they might enjoy reading this.

This is not an exercise in schadenfreude. I do not wish any ill upon him and imagine he is probably going through a special kind of hell as he wiggles, nods and gulps under the gaze of Leveson and the television cameras. I do think he should do the decent thing, and resign – after all, with his connections and birth, I'm sure a lucrative consultancy position would be in the offing. And there's always his fortune, estimated at several million, to fall back on. And if not? I'm sure there are many of us former employees out there who'd happily train him in the best way to format a spreadsheet.