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The head above the parapet

Mark Mardell | 17:28 UK time, Tuesday, 27 July 2010

hayward_afp_304.jpgThe US media have been making much of the fact that an American is in charge of BP for the first time.

It seems to be a source of some satisfaction here. It's taken as an acknowledgement of the importance of the US to the company. It is America's largest producer of gas and oil, and a third of its reserves are here.

Indeed BP ballooned in size in the 90s when it took over the American firm Amoco. There is a good argument that BP's safety problems stem from taking over the sometimes antique equipment owned by Amoco and not updating it.

But the acquisition means that in the US, BP mostly looks and sounds American.

Tony Hayward was the exception. As I've been saying for weeks, the concept that BP was being singled out for attack because it was a British firm was a media myth that received wide currency in the UK, without any evidence from the US. But not having a foreigner in charge may smooth the way ahead a little.

A change of accent may not be answered by a change of tone from the White House which has previously insisted it's not who's in charge that matters, but that BP honours its promise to clean up and pay out.

And the absence of estuary English may not sway those politicians pressing for criminal charges and new safety rules that would stop BP getting licences for new wells.

While BP's figures are startlingly good, given what it has to pay out, it is not out of the woods yet. Neither, of course are the people of the Gulf of Mexico, where the economic and environmental damage is still difficult to quantify.

But will this emergency be taken as lesson by chief executives of the dangers of leading from the front?

Mr Hayward's fate, while not exactly excruciating, is not what he would have wanted. I think that what he did - getting on a plane, taking personal charge of the disaster, being the public face of BP - was an act of courage and leadership. It was also a catastrophe.

He didn't have the media skills or the right plans in place to parade along the parapet, without getting shot at.

In future, CEOs in a similar situation may murmur at an unfortunate underling: "Best if you handle this one, I need to stay here at HQ."


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