Martin Vander Weyer Martin Vander Weyer

Mike Lynch has little chance of escaping US jail

Mike Lynch (Alamy)

As I’ve said before, I hold no brief for Dr Mike Lynch, the founder of the Cambridge-based software firm Autonomy, who faces US fraud charges over the $11 billion takeover of his company by Hewlett-Packard (HP) in 2011. But I watched with foreboding as US marshals bagged Lynch under the lopsided 2003 US-UK extradition treaty and flew him to California – after the then home secretary Priti Patel declined to halt the process – and a judge there changed his pre-agreed bail conditions to place him under armed house arrest.

Now, having comprehensively lost the argument that as a UK citizen running a UK company he should have been tried in British courts, Lynch is pleading ‘not guilty’ to a San Francisco jury. Still wealthy, he can afford the fanciest lawyer: Reid Weingarten has previously defended Jeffrey Epstein, Roman Polanski and Bernie Ebbers, the boss of the collapsed telecoms group WorldCom, who served 13 years of a 25-year sentence for fraud.

But the fate of Ebbers is one of innumerable cautionary tales for Lynch. Over here, complex fraud cases often collapse, hung up on nuances of law and mountains of evidence, as justice grinds slowly but fairly. Over there, the odds are loaded against white-collar defendants, who face such vast legal costs that plea-bargaining is frequently the only viable option.

Data from Pew Research Center shows that in 2022, only 290 of 71,954 defendants in federal criminal cases – 0.4 per cent – were acquitted at trial, while 1,379 were convicted; of the rest, nine out of ten pleaded guilty. Lynch is up against an overall conviction rate of 91.4 per cent.

The prosecution says he was ‘the driving force’ behind a ‘multiyear, multilayered fraud’ that gulled HP into overpaying by billions. The defence will say HP destroyed that value itself by mismanaging an acquisition it did not fully understand, then scapegoated Mike Lynch. I’ve no idea who’s right. But I’ll bet it will be many moons before he’s back on these shores.

China’s electric shock

‘What do we want?’ ‘Cheap electric cars!’ ‘When do we want them?’ ‘Now!’ That was the chant, more from net-zero-conscious politicians than from consumers hesitant to abandon petrol and diesel, just a few years ago. Global auto manufacturers responded at remarkable speed, most declaring that full electric ranges would be available by 2030. But we’re beginning to see the value of that old cliché about being careful what you wish for: the EV switch has turned into a battle for the survival of old-world car-makers against the advance of the Chinese.

Alarms rang in the last quarter of 2023, when Shenzen-based BYD sold more electric cars than Tesla, the US market leader. Having forged ahead in battery technology – and with the benefit of hefty state subsidies – BYD and other Chinese marques such as MG (owned by SAIC of Shanghai) have raised their quality but can price their cars up to 30 per cent below those of competitors.

The result looks like panic, as UK and European manufacturers call for sanctions to prevent wipeout and Honda and Nissan team up to fight back for Japan. There are scare stories, too, with President Biden claiming Chinese vehicles that transmit data to Beijing are a US national security threat and even Top Gear magazine warning of secret immobiliser devices that could ‘destabilise the UK economy’. One way or another, it seems, China’s threat to the world is now electrically driven.

Karaoke memories

News from Japan of the death of Shigeichi Negishi – creator in 1967 of the world’s first commercial karaoke machine, the Sparko Box – brought mixed memories. When I worked for Barclays in Tokyo in the 1980s, I occasionally visited small provincial banks to thank them for placing sterling business with us in London. These were simple encounters: we gave them monogrammed golf balls; they proudly showed us the local nightlife, invariably ending with karaoke. What was remarkable was that most Japanese bank managers could belt out a big ballad like Charles Aznavour, whereas most visiting Brits were awful at it. But there was no avoiding the torture: the solution was to master one song you could offer when pressed – mine was ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ – knowing that your hosts would never want to be upstaged by gaijin (foreigners), so actually preferred you to be tuneless.

My worst performance was in the southern city of Fukuoka, where we were entertained in a late-night lounge so old-fashioned that it still had a live accompanist rather than an electronic singalong. Stepping hesitantly to the mike, I tried to take my tempo from the pianist – who, with exquisite Japanese politeness, insisted on taking his tempo from me. The result was so slow, and getting slower, that by the time we reached ‘Let me sing forever more’, it seemed possible I would do just that. What pain I might have been saved by Negishi’s invention.

It’s only words

How curious that Lloyds Banking Group – as parent of the Scottish Widows insurance company which makes such marketing mileage out of the black-caped beauty in its television ads – has advised staff to avoid the word ‘widow’ in case customers find it upsetting and try using ‘separated’ instead, though it clearly doesn’t mean the same. The bank’s new vocabulary guide also discourages the use of vegan-offending ‘guinea pig’ in relation to the testing of anything new – but admits that this ‘voluntary inclusivity tool’ is itself an imperfect work-in-progress: ‘As is par for the course when crowdsourcing for ideas, some are better than others.’

But wait a moment, doesn’t ‘par for the course’ speak immediately of the white middle-class patriarchy that is the game of golf? And would readers care to suggest a gender-inclusive alternative to the first phrase suggested to me by reading this news item – which was ‘utter bollocks’.