I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
[Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley]
In the bars and restaurants of central London the hacking scandal dominates conversation. For the politically-minded there is only one subject worth tweeting about; and like all good soap operas, the drama is the more compelling for not knowing how the story will end. For me there are three distinct issues that emerge. But first, let’s remind ourselves of how we got to where we are.
Journalism, especially as practiced amongst the more populist titles, has never been for the faint-hearted. The profession didn’t earn its poor reputation overnight, but through a steady investment in dubious behaviour over many decades. From George Gissing to the present day, the journalist of popular culture has rarely been viewed as a paragon of virtue. The same goes for politicians. And so for the chattering classes to suddenly wake up to the imperfect relationship between the two is, to say the least, a bit rich. The fact is that this is unraveling for two reasons: the end of deference with the concomitant decline in trust, and the rise in transparency brought about by the explosion in electronic communications. Now there is nowhere to hide. We live in an age of fewer secrets, where all behaviours are subject to scrutiny. So what are the three issues that emerge from this?
The first is a reality check. For the vast majority of people this ‘scandal’ is of little interest. Outside the bubble of the great chatteratti, few people particularly care. They never held either journalists or politicians in high regard and so these latest shenanigans merely reinforce long-held prejudices. For them, what matters is their family, their economic position, and their immediate livelihood. This story serves to highlight the gap between the political class and the ordinary citizens (perhaps it is no surprise that so many have effectively opted out of the franchise).
The second is a more profound point. For those of us who have grown up believing that the cosy relationship between the media and the political class was how things were ordained, here is the wake-up call that life doesn’t actually have to be like this. The established hegemony only existed because we allowed it to, perhaps through supine fear, or because we felt it served our interests. But it is hugely important to remember what we always knew: that nothing lasts forever. Change is constant; things can improve; the current will give way to the future; the established order will be replaced. These are the lessons of history. With our new found confidence, and with the tools of electronic media, we can, like the citizens of the Middle East, say out loud that we think that society, as it is now constituted, is broken. Over-consumption and irrelevant consumption, together with poor values, has led us into a cul-de-sac. The pie throwing incident showed clearly that the emperor has no clothes. This should give us confidence to see things differently and to embrace change.
Thirdly, I sat back and tried guess which institution would be next to face the harsh reality of scrutiny under the spotlight of transparency. I have a feeling that it will be large corporations. Not because they harbour illegal activities, but because they are repositories of behaviours and attitudes that are increasingly questionable. There are fewer checks and balances on the actions of senior executives. The inter-connectedness between executives and non-executives is, to say the least, surprisingly incestuous; and the variance in pay and reward between senior executives and ordinary workers is of increasing concern. Annual meetings are a farce. The institutional investors are often absent, leaving the small, ordinary and utterly impotent shareholder to attempt to hold management to account. However, it may not be the outside world that starts to be more questioning of senior corporate management. The employees themselves have the social media tools and they are the ones that no longer automatically trust their seniors out of deference. They will increasingly start to want to refashion their organisations. Working practices need to become more relevant. Command and control management styles and hierarchies need to be replaced with collaborative models. And status and reward needs to be more equitable. After all, employees are becoming increasingly aware, like the traveller from an antique land, that nothing lasts for ever.