The selective morality of our business leaders
20 June 2008
It takes real talent to pull off the rare double whammy of being described as a leech by a City lawyer and as a mugger by a senior TV executive. Yet, on the face of it, the 43-year-old Cardiff postman who was the target of these complimentary insults did nothing exceptional to earn them. He was merely rather nimbler on his feet than people whose salaries were 20 or 30 times his own.
The idea behind Duncan McDonald’s freelance business was simple. For the past few years, he has looked out for announcements in the press about large firms which were planning to change a brand name, take over another company or set up a new business. He then went to Companies House headquarters in Cardiff, paid £20 to register the name himself, and awaited the call from enraged or bewildered corporate lawyers. Outed in The Sunday Times and vilified by some of the people he had outwitted, Mr McDonald was unrepentant. He had nothing to be ashamed of, he said. He had simply been entrepreneurial.
This is altogether too modest. The postman should be proud that he behaved in the traditional manner of those building a business – like a hungry shark. It is the outrage of those on the receiving end of his commercial flair which is more interesting. Did the lawyer who accused McDonald of being a leech pause to consider how money is often made, perhaps by his very own clients, in the City? Was the mugging of which the television executive complained any worse than the various dodgy phone-ins over which TV companies have presided in recent times?
Over the past decade, big business has discovered the advantage of selective morality. Industrialists have acquired a tinny fake halo from their friends in government. Suddenly, making oneself rich has acquired surprising connotations of civic virtue.
It is not enough for Richard Branson to be good at earning loads of cash for himself and his shareholders; he must be seen, at every occasion, to be “giving back” to society. The Apprentice is not merely a grubbily compelling game show but is seen, even after its winner has admitted lying on his CV, as some kind of force for moral good. When the immoderately rich attend charity functions and donate money to good causes, the morality of their absurd wealth is never questioned. Instead, every act of financial exhibitionism is rewarded by grovelling press coverage.
This muddled view of business and ethics encourages large firms to promote themselves on the back of their own dubiously earned environmental virtue, or supermarkets to express concern about alcoholism in the young while shamelessly displaying it and promoting it to teenagers. So long as the warm words and the gentle smile are in place, business can be as villainous and hypocritical as it likes.
Now and then, industrialists acknowledge the absurdity of expecting the commercial sector to be some kind of moneyed social worker. Asked recently about fuel poverty, Paul Golby, the boss of the energy firm Eon UK, asked: “Why should the energy companies be responsible? Tesco and the food companies are not required to help the poor.”
In the past, most business leaders would speak like this. Their job was to maximise profits; it was up to others to fret about society. That arrangement had one great advantage: it was honest.
Perhaps, as the recession begins to bite, the moment has arrived for industrialists to dispense with their fake haloes and behave with the frankly entrepreneurial self-interest of the postman from Cardiff.
Britney on the syllabus
Not before time, the University of East Anglia will devote a full-day symposium next week to the topic of the moment – female celebrities. Among the academic papers to be presented are “Britney’s Tears: The Abject Female Celebrity in Post-emotional Society”, “Talent: Representations of Female Celebrity in Heat Magazine” and, surely one of the day’s highlights “Defined in Terms of Decoration: Jordan, Jodie and Critical Reflections on Agency and Objectification”. After the conference, there will be the launch of what is described as “the world’s first celebrity studies journal”. This will be glad news not only to Celebrity Studies faculties all over the world but also to anyone concerned about the news that really matters.
* In a touching attempt to show that Whitehall is a hip, happening place, the Cabinet Office minister, Tom Watson, has revealed that senior civil servants are to be given lessons by their younger colleagues in the intricacies of Facebook and Bebo. Encouraging Whitehall warriors to engage with social networking sites, the Government says it wants its officials to “speak with an authoritative voice” online.
What a sad picture this conjures up. Hours of publicly-funded time will be lost as dear old things grapple with the concept of writing on each others’ walls or getting poked. Has no one realised that once Whitehall discovers social networking, it may be able to speak with an authoritative voice but nothing else will get done? This very week The American Journal of Psychiatry has reported that internet addiction is a real problem – particularly among socially awkward men.