Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley had far more to say than many had anticipated when he appeared before MPs in Parliament today.
But while his willingness to discuss the business was clear – and should be applauded given the advice he was apparently given by PR advisers to provide “short” responses – his comments often threw up more questions than they answered.
“How can you media train me?” Ashley joked as he defied the advice of his PR team and went more off-piste with his colourful retorts during the 90-minute grilling, telling MPs the many things he wasn’t – including an accountant and, more bizarrely, Father Christmas.
Yet another thing he apparently wasn’t was a man aware of all the dubious working conditions and practices experienced by the thousands of employees working for Sports Direct.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” was a phrase Ashley returned to on several occasions when MPs delved deeper into contentious topics, including the use of agency workers and sexual harassment cases.
To analogise, as Ashley did various times when giving evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee today, his narrative depicted him as a parent whose lax discipline with their children in their younger years had allowed them to go off the rails as they grew into adulthood.
Ashley’s analogy of choice was to describe his growing Sports Direct business as a “dinghy” that had rapidly become “an oil tanker”, which now had to be controlled by “various groups” rather than himself.
In doing so, Ashley intimated that he had almost lost control of the business, that it had “outgrown” him, that he was no longer the right man to take it forward and right the wrongs that have dragged both his and the retailer’s names through the mud.
To his credit, Ashley slammed some of the practices – which he said were unknown to him – as “repugnant” and “disgusting”, including a now defunct policy of deducting staff in its Shirebrook warehouse 15 minutes’ pay if they showed up just 60 seconds late for a shift.
He added that those at Sports Direct “deserve the cane” if it had been misusing its tannoy system to be “abusive” towards workers.
Ashley’s mood swung from grumpy teenager at the beginning to a more contrite and even at times emotional demeanour by the end. The atmosphere was tense to say the least.
While he claimed his personal investigation of such working conditions at the retailer was “ongoing”, Ashley opened the door for an independent review to take place into its corporate governance after being quizzed on whether the Sports Direct senior team was still fit to do their jobs.
One MP asked the billionaire: “If you’ve gone from a dingy to an oil tanker, shouldn’t you get someone who can drive a tanker?”
“Possibly,” Ashley said. “I can only do my best.”
Perhaps Ashley’s best is no longer good enough.