Tuesday 19 July 2011

Thresholds of Materiality

Like everyone else, Mrs Angry watched the questioning this afternoon of Rupert and James Murdoch by a parliamentary committee, and most of the later session with Rebekah Brooks. Apart from the immediate significance of the event, and everything this told us, or failed to tell us, about the pernicious influence of the Murdoch empire, and the dark intricacies of the phonehacking scandal, there were also, she reflected, resonances of another shameful issue, on a smaller scale, but one rather closer to home: the MetPro affair, our own locally grown scandal, born and nurtured here in Broken Barnet, and still unresolved, despite the best efforts of those of us who have investigated the matter and brought it out into the light of the public domain.

It could be argued that the time honoured ritual of the committee system is actually Britain's most important contribution to the march of civilisation. Long after the sun has set on the last corners of our empire our bureacratic systems and traditions still continue to rule the world. In every country you can think of, wherever you have a group of people who have to make a joint decision, you must have a committee, with a chair, and members, and motions, agendas and reports. This could only be invented by the British, or even dare we say, only by the English: it is so suited, is it not, to our innate sense of fair play, and the need to attempt to control the uncontrollable, and bring order out of chaos?

Take a committee, and add to its responsibilities an inquiry, and you make an Englishman or woman very happy: you've added another well loved tradition, the detective story: whodunnit?

As in any good murder mystery, the parties under suspicion in the Hackgate case sat today and played their roles before the investigation with complete sangfroid, their lines carefully rehearsed. We were given a display of a clever combination of wide eyed innocence, combined with just the right sort of hand wringing for terrible things which happened but which were, of course, the fault of other people.

Earlier today we heard evidence from the two most important policemen in the country, who have resigned from their posts because grave mistakes were made while they were in charge, and so they felt they could not continue with any credibility. Of course it is easy to say that they have only resigned once certain known facts were in the public domain, rather than on a point of principle, or that they went before they were sacked, but at least they have had the grace to step down.

Compare this to the usual reaction by any politician or high profile corporate figure accused of wrongdoing, especially those in positions where it is almost impossible to dislodge them without their agreement. There is no honour in their eyes in resigning on a point of principle, or admitting responsibility, no need to to be mindful of the demands of accountability to shareholders or electors.

The Murdochs were not aware of any malpractice in their companies. Everything wrong was blamed on someone else. The lack of clarity on the company's control of expenditure, for example, was nothing to do with them. They trusted their managers to follow the deeply ingrained sense of ethical standards they expected of their employees. They asked no difficult questions.

Was it not, they were asked, a 'cultural problem' within the company, where people will only tell things you want to hear? To curry favour? Oh no, that could not be, thought Rupert: he could see through people like that. On the other hand, he could not see any of the bad things he had subsequently been told about, to his great shock, because he had been left in the dark. Reminded that 'wilful blindness' was not an acceptable excuse, he simply rejected the possibility of such a charge, although he then admitted that he may have been guilty of a certain 'laxity'. Others might see it as incompetence, of course, but that doesn't matter either, apparently.

As in News Corp, so in Broken Barnet. The MetPro Audit investigation certainly revealed 'cultural' problems, systemic failures of financial control, and a senior management team whose 'hands off' approach to executive administration neatly matches the delegated oversight of the Murdochs.

The News of the World's shameful use of phone hacking, and the gross invasion of privacy of the victims of crime, and grieving families, of course far outshadows the appalling acts of maladministration that MetPro has uncovered, but even here we have seen children and vulnerable adults put at risk by the incompetence of senior management, who refuse to investigate the harm which may have resulted from such negligence, and, let us not forget, because I certainly have not, that some of us have also had our privacy invaded by illicit filming and 'monitoring' by council employees: a practice for which no one has taken responsibility, or apologised. Whether it is due to 'wilful blindness', laxity, incompetence: no one here has taken the blame, or lost their job as a result of what happened.

In his performance at the committee, James Murdoch went to great lengths to appear saddened, and contrite, and talk about moves to make their company 'what it has always aspired to be', whilst still retaining his family's manic grip on the business.

Here in Broken Barnet our CEO, on £201,000 a year, and his deputy, the Chief Finance Officer, on a £1,000 a day, remain in post, talking in hushed tones about lessons learned, and action plans, whilst hurrying in, with indecent haste, the introduction of massive outsourcing of public services, and a freshly gutted corporate body in which less fortunate employees will lose their jobs, while the fat cat companies of the private sector grab the new opportunities for profit.

One lesson has certainly been learned by all of us, has it not? Nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of private profit: whether it is a media empire or a billion pound local authority, ethical considerations have no material value, and in the corporate world, behind all the theatricality of public posturing, will always be an irrelevance.

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