An interview with...
Q. What started your interest in consumer affairs?
A. Like so many things in life, I became interested in consumer affairs due to a series of “happenstances”. My first journalist job involved writing up UK company results. At first, I wrote about industrial companies and mines – I knew all about steel ropes and how to get gold out of the ground – but then I switched to breweries. These were far more interesting – especially the “research” visits. I discovered Camra, the Campaign for Real Ale, one of the first genuine consumer groups. It was fighting against the big breweries and homogenised beer. That was it. I had married an interest in finance with real people.
A few years later – around 1984 -, at The Sunday Times, I was amazed at the letters from people with £500,000 or more who wanted to know what to with their money. They didn't trust banks or financial advisers but they trusted me as “you won't earn from any advice.”; Half a million is a lot of money now. It was a whole lot more then.
I discovered that, unlike many of my colleagues, I was good at chatting with “ordinary people”. I enjoyed it. And I enjoyed taking on big companies to ensure they gave consumers a better deal.
Q. What’s been your favourite job?
A. I worked for The Guardian for nearly 12 years. It was my longest ever job and I really loved it. My colleagues were great. More importantly, my bosses let me plough my own furrow, and follow stories I thought would lead to exposing consumer and investor detriment. I broke stories on dodgy land deals, appalling insurance practices, and a score of offers that sounded too good to be true.
For nearly all the time I worked there, The Guardian was located in Clerkenwell, one of the most fascinating parts of London. I also won a number of awards at The Guardian.
Q. And the worst?
A. There are two contenders for the job that I would most like to forget. The first is my employment in the City office of a very large circulation national newspaper about twenty years ago. The then City editor had a rule. Unlike the rest of the paper and every other newspaper, he decreed (he was very grand) that only the writers of a story could pen the headline. Elsewhere, this role belongs to sub-editors.
Now most reporters can’t write headlines and most sub-editors can’t report. And I am no exception. It’s like expecting a tailor to make shoes as well.
But you were not allowed to leave for the evening until you had come up with a good headline. It got later and later. I mumbled something, left rather quickly and never returned. This does not appear on my CV.
My other unfavourite job was my teaching career – I taught (or tried to teach) French. I went into teaching for admittedly dreadful and unforgivable reasons - long holidays, short hours and because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I worked my way through a number of schools in the east of England. I enjoyed a few classes. The rest consisted of mental torture for me – and the children.
I got out. But amazingly, pupils remember you, decades later. Last summer, I met a woman at a cricket match, got into one of those random conversations about home towns and she remembered I had taught her. She was not that traumatised!
Q. You mentioned in your Christmas gift article that you once drove a steam engine. Do you have any other unusual interests?
A. The day as an apprentice steam engine driver was a present. It was wonderful. I was interested in trains as a small boy – I lived in an area criss-crossed by railway lines. I admit to trainspotting and I am still fascinated by transport issues.
I am the honorary treasurer and a trustee director of the London Cycling Campaign, a charity which does exactly what it says.
My other interest with wheels is cycling. This is more commuter travel in London although I sometimes go on charity and other bike rides of up to 60 miles in a day. Last summer, I cycled from Vienna to Budapest.
Since November, I’ve been the honorary treasurer and a trustee director of the London Cycling Campaign, a charity which does exactly what it says. It campaigns for better cycling facilities in the London area. We have nearly 12,000 members, more than any other transport (or political) organisation in London and an annual turnover of around £1m. So it quite a spare time job!
My other pursuit which some may think strange is learning Ancient Greek. It’s a once a week one hour class plus many hours’ homework. Why? I did Latin at school but missed out on Greek so it’s probably trying to make up for lost time. Greek is difficult but not as tough as investment banking products.
Q. What’s been your favourite holiday destination?
A. A few years ago, I combined trains with foreign travel with a trip on the Trans-Mongolian railway from Moscow via Ulan Bator (the capital of Mongolia) to Beijing. Seven days and seven nights on the train broken by visits to frozen lakes in Siberia and time spent with nomadic herders in a ger (yurt) 2,500 metres above sea level in Mongolia. I had my first yak’s milk – still can’t find it in Waitrose!
The train arrived five minutes early in Beijing – a fascinating place, really welcoming and totally safe to walk around at one in the morning.
Q. Is there anywhere you’d still love to visit?
A. Argentina –for the amazing contrasts between the hot north and the frozen south, between Buenos Aires sophistication and the wild wide countryside. So far, all I have done is buy the Rough Guide to the country.
Q. What are your favourite websites?
A. Leaving aside specialist finance sites, the BBC and The Guardian are always near the top. I admit to using Wikipedia more often than I should. And I look a lot at transport information sites such as National Rail and Transport for London. I’m not a great fan of price comparison and cash saving sites. The really low prices always seem to be out of stock while working out the permutations can be trying. But often, they don’t compare like with like – anyone can sell a poor quality product for less than one that will last. I think you get what you pay for – cheap is too often expensive.
Q. Are you looking forward to the Olympics this year? Did you manage to get any tickets?
A. I have mixed feelings about the Olympics. I think the bill is far too high for a few weeks of sport but I shall be fascinated by how London copes and what treats there will be for those not attending. I’m flabbergasted by the rents people will get for letting their homes – even right across the other side of London. I’m not that interested in any of the sports so I didn’t apply for tickets. But my son has a few and has promised to take me (if I want).
Q. How important is the role social networking sites now play within the media industry?
A. More important than mainstream media outlets think but less important than those involved in social media would like. I would rather stories of the “one million Youtube hits for silly looking dog” type never appeared. You can pick up important leads from social media but it does involve wading through a load of trash.
In five years time, there will be something else. People will tire of endless social media and gadgetry will move on – whatever you see now in electronics departments or on your screen will be a museum piece sooner than you think.
Q. Your Twitter page mentions that you specialise in scams – what’s the worst scam you’ve ever come across?
A. The very worst was the man from northern England who received an email telling him he had won €9.5m in a European lottery. He believed this even though he had never heard of the lottery, let alone bought a ticket. The sender said he could have the euros if he sent £10,000 for “legal fees”. Then it was £20,000 for “registration” and so on until he had given them at least £350,000 – his life savings and cash from selling his house. He ended up penniless, his partner left him and his children don’t talk to him.
Yes, he was stupid. Otherwise, the worst scams are those that target vulnerable people such as phoney lotteries or charities.
Q. In your opinion, what the main issues, - both as individuals and as a country, do we face in the coming year?
A. Regaining confidence as a country, reshaping the economy, but most of all rebuilding trust in each other and in institutions.
This article was written by Tony Levene and any opinions are his independent view and not the opinion of John Lewis Insurance or the John Lewis Partnership.