Monday, 2 July 2012

Is it possible to work in media or banking, and be a good person? Ask David Mamet and William Booth.

I have been pondering the problem of immorality.  The current hubbub surrounding the unethical behaviour of Barclays bank follows hot on the heels of a Leveson enquiry which seemed to show that most people in media are ruthlessly immoral and most politicians arrogant self-seekers.  It is difficult not to read about these things and ask yourself the question 'how can ordinary human beings justify such actions to themselves'?  At some point, people in a bank thought that it was not only perfectly acceptable, but a very good idea to defraud the public in order to make themselves money.  At some point in his life, Rupert Murdoch came to the conclusion that it was perfectly acceptable to assume that the amount of money he had meant that he should be able to determine governmental policy, and to manipulate the public for his own purposes.

How did they come to these conclusions?  Are their minds simply depraved, and with no moral consciousness at all?  I find this difficult to believe, and even more difficult to accept - not because it is improbable, but simply because I do not want to accept that people can be so divorced from an ethical sensibility or an ability to see beyond their own interests.

Anyone who has had the misfortune to come across any of my previous blogs will probably suspect the author to have a certain left-ish political sensibility - and they would be absolutely right.  However, one of the dangers of any strongly ideological political belief is that you fall into the trap of judging the humanity of other people on the basis of their political sensibility.

I was struck by this following the news story about David Cameron's daughter being left behind after an official visit.  The Twittersphere was awash with humorous comments about this, using the opportunity to mock Cameron's policies.  The problem is, my immediate reaction to the story was one of sympathy.  I never go anywhere with my children without having a nagging terror of turning around and not seeing them there.  For those of you without children, imagine if you like the experience of checking your usual pocket for your wallet or mobile phone, and finding it missing.  Your first instinct is to check again, feeling into the corners of your pocket (as though the mobile phone is more likely to have shrunk to the size of a peanut than to actually not be there), after which you start rummaging around your other pockets.  Each checked pocket brings with it a rising sense of dread - a fluttering desperation - until you end up furiously checking everywhere else it might be.  You ask around, hoping against hope that someone might say 'oh yes, I have it here', but with a fatalistic certainty hanging over you that the chances are slim...

Can you imagine it?  Ok - multiply it by a million.  That's the kind of emotion I imagine David Cameron experiencing when he realised his daughter was not in any of the cars, because that's the kind of emotion I experience when I have nightmares about losing my children.

Does this make David Cameron suddenly a nice guy?  No.  Does it suddenly make me want to agree with him, or vote for him?  Do me a favour!  What it does is remind me that however strongly I disagree with him politically, he is a human being - and that there are aspects of common humanity which connect me to him.

Another example.  I have actually met someone who described themselves as a 'friend' of Andy Coulson.  This was before Coulson had become the centre of a political scandal and of many investigations of the recent Leveson enquiry.  At the enquiry, the interview of David Cameron focused a great deal on how a man like Coulson could possibly have come to be given a job in government - the implication being that not only were his media connections suspect, but that in some sense his character was as well.  It is easy to think of the former News of the World editor and political spin doctor as some kind of sleazy lethario - a greasy and self-seeking manipulator of the truth.

The person I met described him as a lovely and genuine guy.  Now, I have never met Coulson but this friend of his struck me as someone who was smart, genuine and intensely principled.  She seemed in every respect someone to admire.  How could she possibly have such a high opinion of Coulson?  Or perhaps the real question here is 'how was it possible that Coulson could be a nice guy, but still be able to justify the NotW behaviour for which he was responsible?'

Well.  Here I am going to revert to my left-wing sensibilities and argue that the profit-motive of 'capitalism' is the answer, and the absence of a moral ingredient to the mission of big business.

 A recent paper by Third Sector Research published findings from Chiara Paola Donegani, Professor Stephen McKay and Dr Domenico Moro which showed that" those working in the voluntary sector are more satisfied with their jobs" than those working in industry.  The research highlighted an "‘unexplained factor’  in the differences in job satisfaction – empirically identifying what is often seen as the ‘warm glow’ of working in the voluntary sector".

This paper certainly struck a chord with me.  I have spent my entire working life working for organisations with which I have had an ideological sympathy.  I currently work in education, but for much of my early career I worked for The Salvation Army, and although my particular role in the organisation was stupendously inconsequential there certainly was a 'warm glow' which I felt in going to work each morning for an organisation which was so desperately, so furiously, and so self-effacingly committed to be there wherever human beings experienced desperation, poverty or pain.

The founder of The Salvation Army, William Booth, once argued that "[s]ome of the worst men and women in the world, whose names are chronicled by history with a shudder of horror, were those who had all the advantages that wealth, education and station could confer or ambition could attain" (1890).  He was not suggesting here that rich people were evil.  Indeed, the proverb that 'money is the root of all evil' is a common misinterpretation of 1 Timothy 6: 10, which goes:

"For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows."

Note it is the love of money, and the coveting of it, which is the problem.  William Booth was re-iterating the point that wealth, knowledge, power and ambition can make people lose sight of the connections between their actions and the moral consequences of those actions.

When I was working for the Salvation Army, just as I now work for education, the motive of my employment is explicitly not profit-related.  I emphasise the word explicit because actually there is a certain sense in which education has become more profit-related, as it seeks to increase margins that can make up the shortfall of government cut-backs.  There may, therefore, be a certain implicit sense that education is by necessity a profit-related function, but certainly you will not catch any Vice-Chancellor or Principal giving a start-of-year speech to staff arguing 'your job is to make more money for the company'.  The Vice-Chancellor or Principal may spend much of their time worrying about money, but they are unlikely argue that the job of a teacher is primarily one of generating profits.  In health professions the same: A person may be working for a commercial company contracted by the NHS, and that company itself might be profit-motivated, but staff would never be told that increasing company profits is more important than providing appropriate care for patients.

There is a clear mission to these organisations.  The Salvation Army mission is "to save souls, grow saints, and serve suffering humanity" - and in terms of how the organisation functions this is more important than profit.  The Mission and Vision of the College I work in is "To promote learning as a transformative process: a life-changing and life-enhancing journey to realize potential, in terms of personal development, employability, vocationalism and citizenship".  Ok, so admittedly much of what we do doesn't quite have that enthusiastically idealistic tone - but certainly it would never be argued that course fees should be more important to teachers than academic integrity or educational quality. The learning process is explicitly more important than profit.

I have no point of reference for this - I have never worked for a profit-motivated company or a profit-motivated industry.  I did look to see if I could find a 'mission statement' for Barclays Bank, and the best I could find was a part of its website which claimed "Our mission: to be premier European wealth manager".  There is at least an honesty to that.  Newscorps mission statement is "Creating and distributing top-quality news, sports and entertainment around the world" - although you would have to ask yourself how may examples there are in Newscorps actual practices which suggests a commitment to quality where there is no profit motive.

It is hard for me to imagine what it is like to arrive at work each morning, knowing full well that my purpose is to make money for the company.  To know that my value to the company is dependent on how much money I make for it.  In an age where 'work' has become an increasingly related to our sense of self, this would mean that my value as a human being is dependent on how much money I make for the company.  This idea is one which David Mamet explored to such discomforting effect in his play (and subsequent screenplay) Glengarry Glen Ross, which depicts a corporate world in which the human worth of individuals is measured by what they are able to sell.  "You can't sell shit?" demands one character, "you are shit!":




In Glengarry Glen Ross we see characters that are (with the possible exception of Lingk) universally unlikeable.  They are selfish and immoral.  Their purpose is to cheat people, and make more money than their colleagues by any means possible.  What is more, these same characters frame this unethical behaviour within an apparent moral framework.  As Roma says to Williamson: "What you're hired for is to help us--does that seem clear to you? To help us. Not to fuck us up...to help men who are going out there to try to earn a living".  In other words, what Roma is doing (i.e. cheating, lying and manipulating people into giving him all their money) is nothing more than an honest days work.

The world Mamet is depicting here is one in which the over-riding motivation of generating a profit has led to a divorce between individuals and a moral sensibility - to the extent that immoral behaviour can be perceived by them as moral because it is related to profit.

If you are working in Barclays Bank, where everything you do is centred on making money for people you never meet, is it not possible to imagine that at some point you run the risk of seeing the 'profit motive' as a moral justification in itself?  And if you work for News of the World, where everything is centred on getting juicy gossip in order to sell the paper, is it not possible that the fact that people want to read the stuff will be seen as providing a moral justification for the means by which you achieve it?  And because both banking and the media are extremely competitive industries, is it not possible for that elastic moral framework to bend just a little bit more to give you an edge over your rivals?

When Piers Morgan testified at the Leveson enquiry about his time as News of the World editor, he was asked about a front page article in which a digitally fabricated photo of Princess Diana appeared.  Morgan replied "We didn't actually con the public because it was exactly the same picture than was going to appear in a rival paper the next day".

What is most extraordinary about this is that Morgan did not appear to notice how ridiculous this sounded.  In an industry driven by the need to deliver sensation ahead of his competitors, Morgan saw the use of fabricated photos as nothing more than doing his sensationalist job.  Actually doing it before the rival papers meant that he was 'good' at his job - and this alone is justification for Morgan seeing himself as an essentially 'good' person.  Implicit in Morgan's response is the sense that he justifies his actions according to a moral framework which is based upon his industry's motivations, and that his personal value is based on those same motivations.

All of which suggests that the motivations of your work environment can make good people behave unethically - or at least, suggests that if it is true for Piers Morgan it might also be true for good people.  And the solution?  At the risk of sounding trite, it is perhaps all of us questioning out motivations more often, and more critically - and those in profit-motivated industries perhaps more often than most.

And if that doesn't work, just get a job with The Salvation Army.