As D-day approaches for Uber in relation to their London licence renewal appeal, could the overt charm offensive which has been embarked upon had an adverse, rather than a positive effect on the world’s largest private hire company?
Uber's appeal begins on June 25th, however, they have applied for an interim 18-month licence, which is a strange move given that Uber are appealing the initial decision by TfL not to renew their licence. Whether they have a licence for 18-months or 5 years should be an irrelevance if they are seen to be complying and found fit to hold a licence. Therefore is this Uber taking out a contingency plan to obtain a licence by stealth should their appeal fail.
Uber were refused renewal of their licence on several grounds. TfL found that both medical checks and criminal background checks were inadequately performed. Criminal investigations into the company's drivers may have been hampered after they reported potential criminal activity, which included sexual assault to Transport for London, but failed to report the same said criminal activity to the police. Greyball technology, a piece of software that could be used to block TfL (or any other regulator) from gaining full access to the Uber app, potentially preventing officials from undertaking regulatory or law enforcement duties was also cited as a reason to reject Uber’s renewal application.
All of these issues, plus others, meant that TfL refused Uber's licence renewal under the umbrella term of "not being a fit and proper operator."
Since that time Uber have agreed to share its data with TfL, offered its drivers an injury and sick pay package at a cost of £2 per week, and embarked on a charm offensive which can only be described as mind-boggling.
This charm offensive includes a 5 part, 5 minute docu-advertorial featuring Uber drivers from around the UK, in conversation with their passengers, which include footballers from Manchester United, who are sponsored by Uber amongst others. This is allied to other, slightly more baffling stories, such as Benedict Cumberbatch tackling a group of muggers, along with his Uber driver, emerging less than a fortnight ago... despite the incident actually happening some eight months ago in November 2017.
More concerning is the Open Democracy revelation that the Evening Standard had accepted a substantial sum of money from Uber (as well as several other companies) to positively promote them for a period of two years.
Citylab have said that the Evening Standard have denied allegations that their editorial independance could be compromised. This of course comes into direct conflict with Evening Standard editor and former Chancellor of the Exchequor, George Osborne's links to Black Rock, a major investor in Uber. It wasn't that long ago that an Evening Standard editorial heavily criticised London Mayor Sadiq Khan over his decision not to grant Uber a renewal of their licence.
Uber's current "in your face" advertorials suggesting that they are reformed characters and are now "the good guys" may well appease some of the public, press and politicians, and the reality is that they will probably obtain a licence to operate in London, but one cannot help believing that "methinks the company protesteth too much."
With Lyft, Taxify and others waiting in the wings to enter into the London market, the question must be asked as to whether Uber have gone way over the top in trying to convince the public that they are a reformed company and are no longer the proverbial wolf in sheeps clothing.