When Tim Davie, the new acting director-general of the BBC,
fronted up for his first day on the job earlier this month,
it was a given all eyes would be on him as the corporation
tries to resurrect its reputation in the wake of the Jimmy
Savile sex abuse allegations.
While the job was never going to be an easy one, Mr Davie
quickly managed to make headlines - for all the wrong
His decision to wear a suit but no tie on his first day,
which included several television interviews, was criticised
by a retired public relations executive who emailed him
telling him he looked "silly" and "lightweight" without one,
triggering much debate on the issue. Mr Davie also walked out
of a reportedly less-than-impressive live Sky News television
interview, forcing the BBC to explain later the interview had
Social etiquette can undoubtedly cause people to get tied up
in knots. But the jury will no doubt be out on whether Mr
Davie's dress decision was simply a fashion faux pas,
ill-judged or disrespectful - or whether in fact his critics
are old-fashioned and out of touch, and the story out of
proportion to the "offence".
Of course there is nothing like a sideshow for diverting
attention from serious issues - as many a politician and
senior manager will know - but, if nothing else, Mr Davie
managed to fail the first impressions test with some public.
And there is no doubt that is still considered important,
particularly for many in the business and political sphere
and those in the public eye.
Maybe it shouldn't matter. But it seems it does. Clothes
still maketh the man or woman, not only because they
contribute greatly to that first impression - which some may
argue is only a shallow, superficial,
don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover prejudice - but because of
what they symbolise - often a person's opinions, beliefs and
Members of the emergency services, armed forces and religious
leaders are often visibly defined first and foremost by their
uniforms, an easy indication to the public of their
profession, and a way of identifying members as effectively
one unit representing one organisation with a common goal.
By doing so, that also encourages respect from the public for
that organisation, and also respect from individuals within
that organisation. School uniforms encourage the same, and in
the political and corporate world, it is no different. The
suit and tie are the uniform that symbolise a professional,
Mr Davie has been appointed temporarily to the BBC's top job
following the resignation of George Entwistle after the
corporation's Newsnight report wrongly implicated former Tory
treasurer Lord McAlpine in child abuse allegations. That
followed hundreds of allegations against late BBC presenter
Savile and questions about what the corporation knew and why
nothing was done.
Mr Davie's senior executive role also includes damage control
and reputation rescuing - and presenting a united front. It
also involves reassuring the hundreds of alleged victims they
are now being listened to, and the BBC is serious about
examining its failings to do so in the past.
And to be taken seriously, one must look serious,
professional and respectful. A "casual approach" in dress
could be seen to symbolise a casual approach in professional
dealings. If a person cannot be bothered to put on a tie or
iron their shirt, for example, what else might they take a
casual attitude towards?
That is why, in this case, Mr Davie's fashion choice sent all
the wrong messages. And for those who think the argument is
only one for the fastidious or the upper echelons of British
society, Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull is someone closer to home
who has also copped criticism for his tieless approach.
Western society clearly values individuality and freedom of
choice, but it seems in the office - and particularly at a
senior level - in order to be dressed for success, a tie is
clearly much more than just a tie. (And it appears Mr Davie
is now wearing one to work.)