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July 20, 2005

In Defence of Richard Phillips, "the ketchup man"

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Harry Phibbs comes to the defence of Richard Phillips, "the ketchup man", and argues that the attacks upon Mr Phillips are symptomatic of widely held - and wrong-headed - attitudes about the affluent.

In this cynical age it is necessary to begin by saying that I hold no brief for Richard Phillips. To my knowledge I have never met him although he does live next door to where I used to live in Pimlico. I rent the flat out now and went back recently for a meeting and was told there had been great excitement that week with reporters and paparazzi camped outside hoping to snatch pictures and persuade him to sell them "his side of the story".

By now you are probably wondering, who is Richard Phillips? He is "the ketchup man". The 150,000 a year lawyer who had the temerity to ask a secretary, Jenny Amner, who had spilt ketchup on his trousers to reimburse the 4 cost of the dry cleaning. She acknowledges spilling the ketchup on him in the canteen of the firm, Baker and McKenzie, on 25th May 2005. His email said:

Hi Jenny, I went to a dry cleaners and they said it would cost 4 to remove ketchup stains. If you cd let me have the cash today, that wd be much appreciated.

In vengeance the secretary forwarded his email with a sarcastic reply to the entire office and it was then duly sent on to ensure his full humiliation to countless others working in other firms. Phillips has now left the firm and is understood to be devastated. Just what has Phillips done wrong? Amner's reply said:

I must apologise for not getting back to you straight away but due to my mother's sudden illness, death and funeral I have had more pressing issues than your 4. I apologise again for accidentally getting a few splashes of ketchup on your trousers. Obviously your financial need as a senior associate is greater than mine as a mere secretary. Having already spoken to and shown your email and Anne-Marie's note to various partners, lawyers and trainees in ECC&T and IP/IT, they kindly offered to do a collection to raise the 4. I however declined their kind offer but should you feel the urgent need for the 4 it will be on my desk this afternoon. Jenny.
There is no suggestion that Phillips was aware of the death of Amner's mother. If he had been aware of it then his conduct would have been pretty crass, but he wasn't.

Another objection seems to be that the sum was only 4. It seems to me that this is indeed good value as dry cleaning bills go. But why is Phillips to be criticised for that? If the bill had been 6 or 11, why would that have been better? If she had crashed into his car and her bill had been much higher would it have been reasonable for him to press her for payment then? Or would the fact he earned more than her make it morally wrong for him to do so? At just what sum would it become valid for Phillips to ask to be paid back?

The objection that 4 is a petty, trifling sum contradicts the fundamental objection which seems to be that Phillips is rich and Amner is poor and that in the interests of greater equality Phillips should not be reimbursed.

One would have thought it would have been socialists who would advance this argument - but lawyers are unpopular and so right wing pundits joined the attack. Here is Simon Heffer in the Daily Mail:

Well-heeled solicitor Richard Phillips has, quite rightly, become a national figure of fun after sending his secretary, Jenny Amner, an email demanding 4 to cover the costs of cleaning a ketchup stain off his trousers. Given the legal profession's legendary greed, expect this man's bosses to promote him. I'm only amazed that he didn't also send Ms Amner an additional bill for his valuable time sending the email.
The assumption has been made from this episode that Phillips is mean with money. Maybe he is. But maybe he just likes to choose which donations he makes to charity. If he had waived the refund he was due from Amner he would have effectively made a charitable donation to her. Maybe he feels that the Save The Children Fund or the Lifeboats are better causes. Lord Ashcroft is apparently an amazingly tough businessman who will squeeze every last penny out of a deal but then gives away millions to charity. In that respect he is a pretty typical billionaire.

I can well imagine that Phillips is the sort of character who is a tough negotiator and maintains great attention to detail - he would hardly be likely to be otherwise as a successful lawyer. One might prefer to socialise with someone more easy going. One might have behaved differently in his place. For one thing he is only 36 while the secretary is in her mid 50s - normally people show some deference to those older than themselves. But all that is a long way from the suggestion that he has done something morally wrong. Yet Amner has managed to grab the mantle of victimhood from him and to hype the incident to the full.

I am not suggesting this will lead to the downfall of capitalism. Indeed in one sense ever resilient capitalism has been quick to cash in. The ketchup manufacturer, Heinz, took advantage of the publicity by offering advice on stain removal -"vinegar diluted with water is an easy home remedy".

The incident does, however, show how strong the envy is towards the rich. The mentality that it is a sin to be rich and therefore if a rich person is owed money it doesn't matter if he doesn't get paid would appear to be widespread. The assumption (despite ample evidence to the contrary) that the rich are mean with their money is prevalent. Worst of all is the idea that the poor are poor because the rich are rich, the notion that wealth and poverty are a "zero sum game" the idea of a fixed amount of wealth and that if some get more of it there is less for the rest.

It's often said we have too many lawyers but really we have too many laws. The market economy would not be helped to function with lower calibre lawyers. Similarly if we want to be able to manage with fewer and less highly paid accountants then we need fewer taxes and simpler taxation. Of course the salaries paid to lawyers and accountants must be high enough to attract those of great ingenuity because of the complexities imposed on government by business.

The poor are not enriched by despising and humiliating the successful. If you resent the amount of money that goes on lawyers email the politicians asking for fewer laws. Don't forward disobliging emails about Richard Phillips.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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Is this a parody? If it is, I think you need to say so. As divorced from reality as it is, it is exaclty what some of the more unhinged elements of the right wing here in the States would say.

If you have ever worked at a job you would know that it is unlikely that her boss would not have known why she had been out of the office.

Also, if you have ever met another person, you know that they are not hypothetical fantasies dreamed up by the National Review. Therefore it is highly unlikely that he had four pounds earmarked for a deserving charity, he was just waiting for his secretary to pay him his laundry bill to disperse.

People were outraged about the principle of the thing--not 4 pounds per se. It would be certainly be funnier if the lawyer was gouging the secretary for the cleaning bill but I don't see how it's relevant here. A high word count is no substitute for a persuasive argument. Even one would have been okay.

If it is a parody, bravo.

Posted by: Ryan Farrell at August 29, 2006 10:24 PM

Ryan, a couple of points:

1) She was a secretary at the firm where he worked, but there's nothing to indicate he was her direct supervisor. He had no way of knowing where she was or even that she was out of the office. Clearly he wasn't aware that she was out of the office, since he asked that she pay him that same day.

2) You say "People were outraged about the principle of the thing". What exactly is the principle of the whole thing?

While it would have been gracious of Mr. Phillips to absorb the cost, he was under no obligation to do so. Public vilification seems a bit harsh for someone merely asking for repayment of a debt, no matter how small. I think that was the point of the article that you missed. If anyone was being petty here, it was Ms. Amner. She's the one who decided that Phillips should be shamed in public.

I'd say the principle of the whole thing is that people should use email wisely. Say it with words, say it with flowers, but never say it in writing.

Posted by: JD at November 25, 2006 03:33 PM

Your defence of him sucks!

Posted by: Lisa at May 3, 2007 10:20 PM

I think that his choice in words was offensive, whether she was in the office, on a lovely sunny holiday somewhere in the tropics or sat at her desk. He didn't use the word 'please', his 'thanks' was added in a seeming afterthought...

I think that she KNEW his tone far better than those of us who are just reading the article afterwards do, and that the whole of third floor would have KNOWN from previous dealings with Richard, whether he was a bit of a mean character; even if not a tight mean character.

To me, the whole thing sounds like his e-mail was the straw which broke the camel's back. As a lawyer myself, I can say that the profession really does encourage hierarchial and demeaning treatment of lower-ranking employees across the board. Most of the stereotypes about high-flying lawyers not only being rich and greedy, but generally cruel and unkind, are in fact true.

Jenny was a mature, bereaved woman who surely would not have wanted to embarass Richard in front of the entire floor, had he been kind, innocent, helpful and a generous member of the society as you suggest.

Thanks for your alternative viewpoint, but let's face it; the guy was probably a troll and had it coming!

Posted by: Gloria at May 21, 2011 05:43 PM
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