His appearance before the House of Representatives Energy Committee was a ritual humiliation.
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Hayward has been a punching bag for anti-corporate rage ever since he planted his Oxford brogues in his mouth once too often. Thanks to the Home Counties lilt to his accent, this has sometimes crossed over into outright xenophobia. New York Congressman Anthony Weiner summed it up for NBC television: “Whenever you hear someone with a British accent talking on behalf of British Petroleum they are not telling you the truth. That’s the bottom line.”
Other politicians have been as quick to grandstand, sensing an easy, populist target. Senator Kit Bond referred to “British Pollution, if you want to call it that.” Sarah Palin, whose husband worked for BP for many years, urged people who live in the Gulf states to “learn from Alaska’s lesson with foreign oil companies” – glossing over the fact that BP is 40% American owned, after merging with Amoco a decade ago.
More seriously, the Obama administration has made a habit of referring to the company by its old, imperial name: British Petroleum rather than BP, the international brand. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s infamous promise to keep his “boot on the throat of British Petroleum” was the most egregious example, but White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and the President have used the company’s former title, which was dropped in 1999.
“There was a desire to point out this is not an American company,” said Joe Romm, senior fellow at think-tank the Centre for American Progress. “But the biggest problem has been Tony Hayward. If he hadn’t been so repeatedly tone deaf, we would have seen less anger. He’s British, he sounds British. Maybe there’s a perception there’s something especially British about his insensitivity.”
The White House name-calling prompted a furious letter from Scotland to the Washington Post. “In his seemingly hell-bent attempt to destroy BP, President Obama is revealing an ugly side of his attitude toward Britain,” wrote Mark Campbell-Roddis, from Dunblane.
Old slights have been revived by the British press in support of the idea Obama is Anglophobic: he removed a bust of Churchill from the Oval Office, denied Gordon Brown a joint press conference on his first trip to Washington and gave poorly chosen gifts to the former prime minister’s family.
London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, complained to BBC Radio Four that: “When you consider the huge exposure of British pension funds to BP, it starts to become a matter of national concern if a great British company is being continually beaten up on the airwaves.”
The response from his counterpart in New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, was scathing. “Quite frankly, I would suggest that Boris Johnson park his anger at the water’s edge and redirect it towards BP,” he said. “This is not America versus Great Britain. It’s people, families and their livelihoods versus a negligent corporation.”
This is a common attitude in the areas affected. Anger at BP is running hot, but there are no Union Flags being burned on Louisiana streets just yet. When holidaymakers from the UK began cancelling, the city’s tourism bureau ditched an advertising campaign poking fun
Neil Timms, owner of the Rose & Crown pub in New Orleans, said he has received plenty of seemingly good-natured abuse: “Someone posted on Facebook that people should boycott the pub, because it’s British, but when I called him up, he told me it was just a joke.” The boycott of BP petrol stations on the social networking site has more than 650,000 members. Few know the pumps are privately owned, so withholding their custom hurts small businesses, rather than the corporate giant.
At the Balmoral Inn in Biloxi, Mississippi, bookings are down a third, even though oil has yet to hit the shore. “People are mad at BP, because they were negligent,” said hotel owner Mike Lerner. “They look stupid because they can’t fix it. It’s not that they’re British, it’s that they’re an incompetent oil company.”
Tommy Holmes, who owns Outcast Bait & Tackle in Pensacola, Florida, agreed. “It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s Exxon, BP, Wal-Mart or Santa Claus,” he said. “We’re not more angry because it’s a British company.” His business has been all but shut down as a result of the sea being closed to fishing. He doubted whether the $20 billion fund announced on Wednesday would be enough to compensate all the slick’s victims.
These are some of the “small people” BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg so clumsily referred to as he attempted to express his condolences on the White House lawn. For once, it was a Swedish accent making a tactless remark.
Before the spill, BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” rebranding was considered one of the most effective PR campaigns. Regardless of the company’s safety record, consumers considered it the most environmentally conscious oil firm. That image has been irreparably damaged, along with the Gulf coastline and a vast number of British pensions.