Do Values Matter?

Consumers have had a tense relationship with corporations for a long time. We have grown suspicious, we have learned to recognize the signs of the charming cad and we can detect self-serving piousness in a moment. We can, quite literally, smell the absence of authenticity from the proverbial mile away. To paraphrase the true romantic, Charlotte York of Sex and the City fame, we are exhausted – we have been hunting for the perfect mates for years – and where are they? More importantly, who can we trust, whose words are confirmed in actions, and whose values mirror our own? To put it another way, if corporations were human, whom would we date?

Something as seemingly trivial as ablution products, for instance, can be an interesting indicator of value and values. Whether you travel for business or pleasure, you know that there will be some form of ablution product in your hotel room; be they small bottles of non-descript but functional shampoo and conditioner, or Bulgari body cream and shower gel. We count on these items to be there. If you’ve had to discard your shampoo at airport security (is this a conspiracy against women and their ablution products?) or simply forgotten the essentials, you need not worry. Ablution products in hotel rooms are our assumed reality.

But it was not always so. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that Four Seasons hotel introduced soaps, shampoos and cotton towels into hotel rooms. At the time a radical, and expensive, concept, the Four Seasons lead quickly became table stakes for the entire industry. Again in the mid-1980s, Four Seasons introduced the Spa and, today, they too are standard for all hotels aspiring to be even moderately luxurious.  These introductions were designed to achieve competitive distinctiveness. And they did. But why was it that the Four Seasons made these radical improvements and additions?

The simple answer is that it was a human value – the Golden Rule (yes, the one that admonishes us to treat others as you would have them treat you). This is the value central to what Four Seasons stands for.

At Four Seasons, corporate values are much more than a programme or a policy – they define who we are and inform the decisions we make. The company’s guiding principle is the Golden Rule – to treat others as you wish to be treated

Notwithstanding that this information is embedded in their website (fourseasons.com) under a small header at the bottom of the opening page entitled “About Us”, we know this is the guiding value of the Four Seasons because that is what we experience. Their actions are their words. Ablutions products, cotton towels, spas were the manifestation of the Golden Rule.

Four Seasons is the premier luxury hotel because of their outstanding customer attentiveness. We experience not just simple pampering with the very best of linens, foods and ablution products; we experience elegant, professional respect and kindness. We experience the Golden Rule.

We experience it because the Four Seasons employees live the Golden Rule. Imbued with this human value, employees deliver not service, but genuine attentiveness.

In his recent book, Four Seasons, The Story of a Business Philosophy, Isadore Sharpe recounts an example of this attentiveness. Four Seasons Chicago, evening event, husband did not know it was black tie, an employee changes out of his tuxedo into his own street clothes, presses the tuxedo and lends it to the guest – complete with a Four Seasons seamstress taking up the hem of the pants.

Closer to home, my stepmother was living in the Four Seasons Chicago with her very large, very adorable poodle who needed to be walked everyday. Because her schedule was frantically busy, the Four Seasons staff arranged to walk the dog, everyday rain or shine. The Golden Rule, seemingly, extends to all creatures.

In standing for a human value, Four Seasons has redefined luxury. True luxury now means pampering plus excellent quality plus human respect.

My question is – is human respect now exclusively in the luxury category? Why is it not just part of the way companies do business?

In reading a recent restaurant review by the always-tasteful Joanne Kates of The Globe and Mail (December 4. 2010), she remarks on the restaurant’s reservation etiquette: in booking a table for 7:00 pm she was told politely (and thoughtfully she notes) that the table was booked again at 9:30pm – so she and her party would have to leave at 9:15pm. Kates then explained that while the request was intelligible and made economic sense, it still “rankled”. Because, this is “not exactly my definition of hospitality” concluded Kates. It is certainly a case of economics trumping a human value.

In the same December 4th edition of The Globe and Mail was another story in support of human values. A portrait of Mike Lazaridis, the CEO of Research in Motion and founder and supporter of The Perimeter Institute, celebrating his vision is to marshall the “great brains” to create dramatic breakthroughs in science and enrich our communities. This dramatic commitment to human thinking and achievement is noteworthy and commendable – and reflects Mr. Lazaridis’ commitment to “giving back” and citizenship. Whatever the debate about the efficacy of the approach, we believe Mr. Lazaridis to be a man of value and values.

But flip to another story in the same section, and we read about the ravages of the telecommunication producers in their extraction and use of coltan. Coltan, because it contains a key ingredient in electronic circuitry, is essential in every electronic product, including mobile devices. Coltan is mined in The Democratic Republic of the Congo and the concerns are that inhumane labour practices are being used in its extraction and, worse yet, the monies exploited are being used to support brutal warlords. Federal Member of Parliament for the NDP party, Paul Dewar, is calling for assurances that electronic products do not support these practices and are, as he terms them, “rape-free”.

There is a complex chain of custody, and various efforts are in place to try to ensure adherence to codes of conduct.

But within this discussion where are the RIMs, Apples, Nokias and Dells of the world? Where is the stand these companies are taking on ensuring that materials required for the production of their devices do not transgress essential human values?

Yes, we appreciate that political considerations are complex; that the essentialness of coltan creates possibly uncomfortable conditions of production; that without a viable alternative substance, the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are held hostage to non-negotiable economic realities. But where are human values in this equation?

In the end, we are left with two very different portraits of the same company. We have the inspired Mr. Lazaridis who commits significant funds to create and support a centre of human intelligence. We have a company of which he is the CEO, which does not publicly explain its use and purchase of coltan. We respect and admire the man; we are curious about the company.

The path to respect, loyalty and love is not complicated. Companies, if you want us to fall in love with you, ensure that your actions reflect real human values.  We may purchase you for your economic value; we will continue to purchase, admire and adore you because of the values you reflect.

And lest is be commented that the real reason The Four Seasons reflects the human value of The Golden Rule is because one pays for that value, then let me comment on my local shoe repair shop. Part of a nation-wide chain, it is not a sole proprietorship. But the man who runs the shop knows me by name, always asks about how I am doing, and always delivers me excellent, prompt, attentive service. Yes, that is because my shoe fetish helps support his business; but I chose to take my business to him first because of convenience and quality, and second and more important, because he treats me with respect and warmth. It is the personal value that is his competitive differentiator.

So while we wait for more companies to understand the true value of human values, let us encourage them and explain that it is how we experience your values that really matter. When they reside only in annual reports and speeches they have no impact. When they come to life in how a business acts, they drive business success because they are why we fall in love.

Marketing Authenticity

White washing has an expanded colour palette.  Originally (16th century) an inexpensive paint, whitewash was used politically in the 19th century in reference to American President Adams.  Today we use it colloquially to mean “covering up bad behavior” – and now it comes in different hues.  Green-washing is when companies make environmental claims that are superficial at best, fraudulent at worst; Blue-washing are superficial claims around improving water footprint; and now there is Pink-washing, superficial claims around supporting women’s breast cancer. 

These terms reflect our deep distrust of corporations.  We believe that corporations are motivated only by profit maximization, and can’t possibly be genuinely concerned about social and environmental actions.  If they are it is because of business considerations.  For example, when Walmart is committed to reducing transportation costs and creates a new mechanism that can load more palettes on delivery trucks it is not about protecting the environment, it is about reducing energy costs.  By reducing their operational costs, Walmart is able to deliver on its business mandate – deliver the best quality products at the lowest possible prices – and its Brand promise – Save Money. Live Better. 

Whether Walmart is motivated by environmental considerations or not is not the point.  They can be making the world environmentally a better place because of their business motivations and mandate.  Holding on to the notion that pure intentions matter misses the great good that companies can and do achieve. 

Savvy social and environmental activists understand this:  one needs to speak to the interests and motivations of companies and individuals if you want them to pay attention. Companies have adopted environmental stewardship because it satisfies the need for cost reduction.   Historically most human resources policy was adopted because it improved employee performance, attraction and retention.  Every person who has ever had to convince a child or a partner to do something knows the power of “speaking to the listening”. 

But we hold onto the notion of authentic intentions.  While we might get the behavior we want from our partner because we successfully convinced them, we will probably be dissatisfied because we want them not only to act, but to be motivated in the right way.  I don’t just want you to just say you are sorry, I want you to really believe that you are sorry.  And that is what we expect of corporations.  We judge their intentions, not their actions.

But perhaps the deeper question is can you market authenticity?  Can a company, even when genuine, convince us of their authenticity?  The conventional communication tools speak some form of washing:  public showcasing of executives often feels like PR spin; creative communication campaigns feels like slick marketing; cause marketing feels like “you buy, we give”; and where there are sometimes real action on one hand there is conflicting corporate behavior on the other.  Think Coca Cola Live Positively and all the community issues they are committed to – it all sounds great until we remember that the company still markets and sells sugar drinks to kids. 

So what if companies could speak in authentic ways, would we be able to hear and absorb?  I am not sure.  We the audience have been nurtured on marketing which makes us savvy consumers of corporate speak, but we have also been rendered unable to understand anything but the creative reductivism that is marketing language. 

Whether it is Nike and Just Do It, Apple and Think Different, Amex and My Life. My Card, or DeBeers and A Diamond is Forever, these taglines have become our truths. And now we need all truths presented in this short, snappy, often grammatically incorrect manner.  Brands discovered a creative and entertaining way to tell us who they were.  Nurtured on this, we now live in a world dominated by the short and snappy; Think Twitter, think news headlines. We have created a world of marketing tropes that prevents the complexity of ideas reaching us. 

So even if a company or a brand were genuinely committed to a social or environmental issue it is not clear we would ever see or hear that.  They would feel they need to tell us the story in simple, entertaining terms and we would read that as brand marketing which by definition is selling us image not truth. The short and snappy combination is incapable of delivering authentic truth. 

We have created our own conundrum.  We lust after image, but we crave authentic connection.  We want to be marketed to, but we judge by intention.  We are the creator of, and slaves to marketing that is powerful precisely because it has reduced complexity.  But it may have also made authenticity impossible.  

Moral Hazard

Greed is good.

Once upon a time this was an assertion and a truth. Today it is a question – is greed really and truly good? Can capitalism survive if this is an unanswerable question? Or to put another way, how can capitalism survive if we cannot show that greed is indeed good?

I finally watched the second Wall Street movie, having avoided it for some time because all the reviews said it was trite, uninteresting, predictable and boring. Predictable, and because of that, somewhat boring, yes, but trite and uninteresting no. Indeed, there were some gem-like lines that deserve re-statement and reflection.

We remember the great line is the first Wall Street movie – Greed is good. Greed really will make the world go around; it is the lubricant that spurs action and because everyone knows the game, there is a certain “honesty” to the system.

Fast forward to the banking-generated “recession” of 2009 and the near collapse of the world’s financial structure. Released from jail, but not repentent, Gordon Ghekko, asks, Is Greed good? Money he says is “a bitch that never sleeps” and, in addition to never sleeping, she is an intensely jealous mistress. What GG, and the screenwriter, might not know is that the female metaphor was the language eighteenth century observers of financial matters used to describe and understand the volatility of capitalism. Fortune was a fickle women; you had to woo and seduce her to win her favour. But her favour was capricious; she could not be trusted. Even with over 200 years of observation, study and analysis, we are reduced in 2011 to reviving this metaphor as the best way to understand a financial system whose volatility continues to elude – and terrorize – us.

What we need to do, as Mr. Ghekko and other real-life observers assert, is to restore confidence. And the best way to restore confidence would appear to assert two possibilities. The first is that no one is responsible. This is not to say that there aren’t institutions that are responsible (for example, the rating agencies). It is to say that no inidividuals are responsible.

The second is to identify the presence of a “moral hazard” and say that it can be contained through better regulation. But let’s be clear; moral hazard does not imply individual responsibility. It means that there is uneven, or asymmetric, information that to be minimized, needs better regulation.

This can then explain how it was that Citigroup held a $40 billion position on sub-prime mortgages, but the CEO at the time, Chuck Prince, claims he was not responsible for the disastrous outcomes because he did not know about this position. As reported by The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report, the “defence” was that that was a small position on a corporate balance sheet of $2 trillion. So small and yet so large.

And as Abby Joseph Cohen, one of the most respected, and famous, market analysts and a partner at Goldman Sachs, explains the crisis:

There was a very unfortunate confluence, bad decisions made by many different entities. (NY Times Magazine)

So lots of people making similarly bad choices and decisions, creating a horrendous financial crisis that had deep impacts on how people around the world are able to live their lives, is a way to absolve individuals from responsibility?

Is the market place an arena of herd-like humans who believe unquestioningly in the commands from the front as to shich is the optimal way to march? And then we learn that there is really no one at the front of the line – only institutions who again act in unquestioning ways? If the world is then determined by endless looping of herd decisions, it would appear that we have abandoned individual responsibility. The “market” replaces God in the ageless query – if an entity (read God or the market) is omnisicent and omnipotent what happens to free will.

Moral hazard means that individuals are shielded from accountability and responsibility. Because of something called “information asymmetry” – where one member of a transaction knows something the other does not – victims have had to bear the consequences of the moral hazard. There is a reason that the buyer can’t “beware” because they are ill or un-informed; it is the responsibility of the seller to inform.

If we believe in free will – and I believe we do – then we need to take responsibility for the decisions we individually as well as collectively make. When the analyst assesses the value of a stock, or an investor pitches the value of his project, or a banker sells the new financial product, we need all to know we are responsible for those decisions. Otherwise we are operating in a world entirely bereft of real human connection and accountability.

It is the absence of human trust that is the real problem revealed by the actions of the “market”. The absence of trust only makes it harder for the market to operate efficiently. More potently, it dismantles the glue that binds people into families and communities. We give permission for a world where no one has the back of anyone else.

But moral hazard and the call for new regulation is the responses we need and want. And all that we have been given. The alternative is to say that the system is fundamentally flawed or that human beings, because they created the system, need new rules of engagement. And what would that option look like? Most of the time it appears we are too terrified to even contemplate the question.

So we soldier on. Without mass anger, or mass exodus from the financila institutions we have come to know. We continue as before, out of habit and fear; it is no longer out of belief or trust.

Make-Up

My mother never let me wear make-up. First it was because I was too young. Then it was because she was a feminist. Never having learned how to wear it in my formative years I have been a committed non-makeup wearer. So, although I do indeed desire ablution products to cleanse and moisturize, I have never understood products intended to cover and/or mask.

And that is the problem – not only do the products cover and mask, but the advertising that gets us to believe that they can indeed make us more beautiful covers and masks the truth. While makeup is an old as ancient civilization, the contemporary cosmetics marketing machinery really has convinced us that $400 jars of crème will erase our wrinkles, that we will be sexy and alluring only when our lips are glossed just the right way, and of course, that the man of our dreams will love us because we have perfect eyelashes. But this effective masking of the truth of life has gotten L’Oreal and Maybelline into a bit of trouble.

A gutsy Liberal Democrat MP in England filed a complaint against the digitally-enhanced advertising of both companies. L’Oreal had Julia Roberts in their ad for foundation, while Maybelline had Christy Turlington in an ad for a product called Eraser. The point of both products is that they can cover blemishes and wrinkles, giving wearers a clearer, more beautiful appearance.

The advertising oversight entity deemed that in both cases the women would not have been able to achieve their looks without “additional manipulation”. Both companies have pulled the ads in question.

There are three interesting things. First that digital manipulation is finally being outted when we have all known – industry and consumers alike – that everything we see is remastered and retouched to perfection. But now the myth is exposed.

Second is the response of the two companies. Maybelline continued to assert the scientific proof that their product can conceal imperfections. And L’Oreal also stated that their product has been proved scientifically to “provide luminosity to the skin”. Both companies denied that the advertising exaggerated the effects of the product. In the face of exposing the “myth” both companies clung to their truths. The reasons are obvious; not committing truth protects from legal liability and preserves the functional and quality reputational equity of both the companies, and the industry.

And third, the public response, which has truthfully amounted to virtually no response at all, is bewildering. Why are we either not interested or upset by any of this? The reason, I think, is that we really want to believe the myth. Notwithstanding the anxieties and attendant disorders the mythology creates, it is part of our cultural DNA. We want to believe that we can be that beautiful. Even more, we want to also believe that it is easy – all we have to do is put on a product. The most popular route to improvement is always the easiest.

Look at the world of weight and dieting. Notwithstanding the wide variety of exercise regimes and healthy eating guides and options, we opt for the pill and the surgery to “cure” our increasing girth. Or look at our increasing personal debt burdens – we want the Prada shoes and the Hermes bags and the trip to Rome and instead of taking the hard-work approach, we buy on credit. And so it is with beauty – we believe the myth and the myth can be true with easy products.

And perhaps most disturbingly, we want to believe in the myth of total beauty so we can avoid living in the world of the regular, the real, the aging and the slightly unfortunate looking. Look at the world of plastic surgery – increasing not only amongst men, but also amongst septuagenarians and octogenarians who believe that 70 is the new 40 and 80 the new 50.

Without the myth of attainable beauty we would be forced to live in the world of the real and that is unacceptable. And that is why the cosmetics world and their expert advertisers are not being castigated – they are simply helping us preserve the myth we want to believe.

The New Retail Therapy

Nordstrom is bringing new meaning to the concept of retail therapy. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, retail therapy is shopping with a purpose; when you are feeling forlorn, out of sorts, like the world is not giving you what you need and want you go shopping. Shopping satisfies the “I am important, valued and beautiful” and gets you engaged in looking, trying on and excessive self-reflection. Well Nordstrom has created retail therapy 2.0. Now you can go shopping and make the world a better place. This may be the perfect combination – self-interest that improves the world.

Nordstrom has launched its new Manhattan store – Treasure and Bond. A smaller footprint, these stores will contribute their profit to charities, more specifically children’s charities. People will be able to follow how much is actually contributed on the web site, and will be able to see which charities are receiving funds, as they will change every three months.

Viewed as an “incubator”, product and service ideas that work at Treasure and Bond may be transferred to the for-profit Nordstrom stores. Conceived by Vogue Editor Anna Wintour and, according to the report in the New York Times (August 16th, 2011), a New York philanthropist, Catherine Marron, Nordstrom’s charity store certainly extends and improves upon the typical cause marketing we are used to seeing from other retailers.

This is “retail with a purpose”, and reflects a more serious commitment to truly making a difference to a social cause. First is the financial commitment: Treasure and Bond is not expected to contribute to the parent company’s financial bottom line. What the parent company understands is that this approach will win our respect not only because of the qualitatively more serious commitment, but also because Treasure and Bond will make it easier for us to do good while we purchase. They allow us to do good while exercising our self-interest.

It is true that the Treasure and Bond (note, we will treasure the goods and the purpose which will drive our bonding) has borrowed a model used by a number of global charitable organizations, perhaps most notably Oxfam. Marrying the model of selling products and using revenue to support social projects with a leading brand tells us at least two things.

First, that retailers are finally seeing the power they have to drive purchase and social good. Moving beyond the conventional approaches of momentary cause marketing, where retailers contribute percentage of sales on a given day, or offer charity-designated clothing where percentage of profits go to that charity (think Livestrong, or Red), Treasure and Bond is committing the entire business model and saying we will contribute all “profit”. This challenges the retail world to stand up and be more genuine in their commitments.

And this reflects the company’s knowledge that we are savvy consumers and smell the disingenuousness of cause marketing. The conventional alignment of brand and cause does nothing to alter our perception, awareness or respect of either. We experience conventional approaches as part of the marketing mix, not as a serious or honest commitment to making the world a better place. Treasure and Bond’s commitment will contribute significant financial contributions and to a focused area – enabling the company to potentially make a real difference.

Was this expected or anticipated? Certainly there are numerous retailers that assert a social purpose or connection. Kenneth Cole for example has been an ardent, and edgy supporter of social causes. Aldo has been a long-term supporter of HIV/AIDS programs. Macy’s supports a number of social causes, often linked to the holiday calendar. Nike is partnered with Livestrong; Roots with Right to Play. And the somewhat faded stalwarts of The Body Shop and Benetton were early supporters – and spokes-entities – for social causes.

Nordstrom has had a commitment to being an “ethical” company and one that “incorporates social responsibility across all aspects of our business and everything we do” since they began in Seattle. Nordstrom Cares is their social responsibility arm, and has been doing interesting things in environmental sustainability, contributing to programs that support minority communities, improving the skills and knowledge of their employees. It still however comes as surprise that would create a new retail line of business devoted to supporting children’s causes.

Because like so many companies, they have been relatively silent about their activities. Not wanting to be experienced as self-serving, or cautious about the authenticity and thoroughness of their commitments, companies that are doing good-to-great things in terms of social sustainability typically do not let us know. Treasure and Bond creates a new standard of action and communications.

We are swayed by evidence and experience. Treasure and Bond will have the evidence of real contributions and real effort to earn our respect. And we individually will have the personal experience of knowing that when we are shopping we are contributing to that real difference. We can not only shop guilt free, we can know we are doing good while shopping.

And just in case you think these are the words of a singular proponent of shopping for good, Hope Logan of the globally famous daytime series, The Bold and the Beautiful, proclaimed this past week during the launch of her new fashion line – HOPE – that “we are defined not only by the clothes we wear, but by the beliefs that we share” and her new clothing line is about “raising the standards of social and sexual responsibility”. Perhaps if the marketing experts can cross-pollinate, we might see the HOPE line in the new Treasure and Bond store.

What's a Girl to Eat?

McDonald is trying to atone. In their new full-page ad-statement, McDonalds is committing to reducing caloric content, salt content, getting rid of trans fats in the fries – and making Happy Meals healthier. Why – because, they claim, “our customers are always changing”. Do they mean that over the past 57 years of eating McDonalds Happy Meals and BigMacs we have become fatter and by association, unhealthier? Is this their way of stating that they have been complicit in our health problems and so now are committed to healthier fast food?

There are at least two ways of reading this. The first is that McDonalds is paying attention to the growing health problem of childhood, and adult, obesity. To which we would ask – do you really think that reducing calories by an average of 20% (by really reducing the size of the serving of fries), reducing sodium content by 15% and adding a few apple slices to the Happy Meals is going to change things? This feels like a perfunctory nod to the voices of concern and the alarming statistics that tell us that approximately 15% of youth are obese. If McDonalds is truly interested in us – and it should be given that with an increasingly unhealthy audience they have consumers who will be forced to eat less of their product, and have an unhealthier workforce – then it would wise for them to take this more seriously.

We might suggest that they use their retail space to host sport activities; perhaps offer competitive events at stores; maybe provide coaching sessions for community teams; maybe even take one hour of every day and host 60 minutes of exercise for kids. Or McDonalds could offer cooking classes for families, making it fun and easy to prepare healthy meals. Or instead of providing toys with meals, they could launch a competition where the winning prize is a year’s worth of home-cooked meals.

And yet, McDonalds doesn’t really have to care. The news in both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times of Monday August 8th, report that McDonalds global same-store sales rose 5.1% in July, further demonstrating that McDonalds continues to do extremely well – indeed better than its competitors – through a very challenging recession.

The second way to read this is that McDonalds actually does truly understand us. They get that radical, wholesale changes in menus will be unsuccessful. They understand our addiction because they created it. To undo this pleasure-based need, McDonalds will wean us slowly and gently and move us toward healthier eating. And McDonalds will be successful in this because it has the market heft and girth to drive social change.

The question is why do they have this market power? Yes, it is the addictive-design of the food. But it is also that we are time-starved and anxious. Ask any harried parent who is trying to juggle professional demands, parenting responsibilities and their own personal desires and the one thing they say they lack is time. So between quitting work at 5pm (ha-ha), getting the kids to their after-school programs, continuing to respond to work emails, doing household errands – the thing that drops off the to do list is preparing home-cooked, healthy meals. Taste and time drive the business of fast food.

The recent IPO of Dunkin’ Brand Group is further evidence of how these dual forces are a winning market combination; the shares were offered at $19 and within the first day rose over 45% to close at just over $27. That interesting entity we call “the market” understands the enduring fundamentals of the fast food business. We crave the taste, we require the timesaving.

We are both the drivers and victims. As consumers we have the power to resist – and should be when we are responsible for the lives of children who are incapable of making these choices. As victims of the time-pressured world we live in, we feel helpless to make these choices.

So perhaps we need collectively to make three demands. Fast food restaurants take a page from New York and tell us honestly the caloric content of every item you offer. Employers and governments – we need more time. And to ourselves, we need to live healthier lives. While we have tendency to blame others, especially when they are large corporations, the problem of unhealthy food and not enough time or inclination to work it off, is a collective problem.

If we want to marginalize the power of high-calorie, desired-inducing foods and elevate the pleasure of healthy food and lifestyle, we need to collectively assert our right to be healthier. We need to rewrite the social contract that demands different behaviours from all layers of the social nexus. And in this McDonalds, while their changes may be minor and even disingenuous, is taking a step – we need to match that step by demanding even more.

What Really is Happening with News of the World

The News of the World is that the News of the World is no more. I mean more than just that the newspaper in question has shut down operations. I mean that this is one of those turning point moments that will convince us to stay on the pathway we are currently on, or force us to shift course.

The news of the world is that the world’s most notorious newspaper enterprise has been caught behaving badly. Specifically, transgressing privacy principles and in one spectacular case, causing untold grief and horror to a family of a murdered child. The secondary level is the deception, the not disclosing, but obfuscating on what the newspaper had done, and leveraging its vast, and effective, political and “PR” network to cement its non-disclosure.

There are a number of positions on this. The world needs investigative journalism because it is one of the few pillars able to unearth and expose the truths of public and private sector behavior. This is essential for accountability and that is important if we do indeed want to live in a world where there is any kind of equity, justice, civility and democracy. Indeed, investigative journalism is what uncovered this egregious use of investigative tools.

But investigative journalism costs money and requires financial and educational investment that in the current environment where “substantive news” is being trumped by “tid-bit salacious information”, there are fewer entities able to, or interested in, investing. Murdoch and his organization are one of the few entities able and interested.

And if his model is that he makes money from less savoury news publications in order to finance the more substantive (think News of the World and Wall Street Journal), this is a known model. Think of the movie house of the 1970s that showed pornography during the day so it could show art films in the evening. The means creates beneficial ends.

But transgressing privacy and being dishonest about it are unacceptable. Especially when a private family and their deceased child become caught in the deception. Unlike politicians or “famous” people who one can argue have a Janus-faced reliance on the news media, this family and the investigation into the death of their daughter suffered when they should have only benefited from investigative journalism.

This family was definitely the tipping event, but it has opened up the conversation of the boundary between public and private. Our expectation of privacy is threatened. We feel violated. And we are fearful of what a world that has access into our private lives will look like.

Look no further than to the UK. On a recent trip to London and the English countryside, the first thing one is keenly aware of is the ever-present CCTV cameras. They are everywhere, and just in case you were not aware they are watching, there are announcements that they are watching.

Be it 1984, or Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, or Jean Jacque Rousseau’s Civil Society – we are being watched.

New technologies enable new forms of watching. Why are we surprised that there is the ability to hack into private cell-phones? Did we think that mobile phones are exempt, out of the reach of technologically savvy snoopers?

Being watched can make us behave better. Earning the respect or adoration of another, or wanting to avoid criticism can make us behave better than when alone. All those with bosses know this to be a truth.

Being watched can also make life safer. The young girl who has to take the subway at night, or who needs to go into an underground parking lot knows the value of additional safety.

But being watched constantly and intently does reveal the illusion of personal privacy. So amidst all the criticism of Murdoch, his family, his Senior Executives, their connections to politicians and enforcement executives, what the News of the World has revealed is the illusion that we have personal privacy. And that I believe is a good thing. It will force us to understand what living in a world without privacy means. There are a number of possibilities: the truth of absolute publicity could make us better behaved; it could also force our more distasteful behaviours deeper underground; or it could redefine what is distasteful. What is clear is that the news of the world is that personal privacy is dead, long live the personal.

Whether Murdoch the Elder or the Junior should resign, or whether Prime Minister Cameron deserves the scathing critique, or how deep the connections between big business, government and enforcement go – these are all important issues to discuss and decide upon. But the one issue that is not being discussed is how private do we think we really are and how private do we think we can legitimately aspire to?