12 March, 2016

Making Our Own Reality

We had a nice cup of chocolate and I learned how
commerce works!
Some months ago Pat and I sat enjoying cups of hot chocolate in a well known High Street chocolate manufacturer’s shop here in the UK. It was not busy and on the table next to us there sat three smartly dressed “business men”. They were deeply involved in conversation and after a few minutes they were joined by woman who, it quickly  transpired, was the manageress of this particular branch. Her three visitors were obviously from “Head Office” doing some kind of check up the branch. During the course of the conversation files were frequently referred to and at one point the youngest of the three men, who I suspect was perhaps new to the business, asked a question. In response – and the words have stayed with me – the man who was clearly the most senior replied “Good point, but what you have to remember is that in business decisions  commercial considerations will always take priority over other factors. You always have to ask the question is it commercially good for business not whether it is right or wrong”.  To say that I was a little taken aback at this introduction to the world of business is an understatement. I have never operated within the commercial world so I do not really know the finer points of its ethics, codes or practices but I do know that such a statement, if transferred into the world I do know – that of schools – there would, rightly, be be a huge public outcry.

I have thought about this in the last couple of days.

Adam Johnson in happier times
For the past few weeks one of the headlines in the UK has related to a young footballer, Adam Johnson. He plays for the Premiership team Sunderland and has played for England on several occasions. Like other young men in his profession he is probably already a millionaire – reportedly earning  £60,000 per week from Sunderland  plus many more thousands via commercial sponsorship etc. Unfortunately Johnson has just been found guilty of having sexual contact with a minor - a fifteen years old female fan contacted Johnson, her idol, asking for an autographed shirt and, it seems, one thing led to another. Johnson, of course is mortified and faces some years in prison. His glittering career lies in ruins. It is not the purpose of this blog to discuss Johnson’s situation – he clearly was, at the  very least, an extremely silly young man, a fact that he has acknowledged since the beginning.  But rather, I am concerned with the commercial decisions that his employer, Sunderland Football Club, made in relation to the situation. The Club’s reaction to the affair is now being examined by all and sundry in the national press and by social media and in the the Club’s CEO, a young lawyer named Margaret Byrne, has been forced to resign after she was forced to go into hiding in Portugal, such was the online anger being directed at her. The proverbial “buck” has stopped on her doormat and the media is on a witch hunt over the matter. Byrne has quickly acknowledged that it was her decision and she made the wrong one – namely, to allow the young man to continue to play for the Club even though he had told them privately that the accusations had some substance. Of course, at that point, Johnson had not been tried or found guilty so one might argue that it would have been wrong to take action against him until such a time that the full process of  the legal system had taken its course; in other words, he was  innocent until proven guilty. But in the world of the tabloid media and in a case like this, social media, such judicial niceties do not exist. The Club were in a very difficult position – one could say damned if they did and damned if they didn’t take action against Adam Johnson. But whatever, the legal rights and wrongs and whatever the pertinent points in this case the fact is that Ms Byrne and the Club are now regretting the decision that they made.

The Club are struggling on the football field at the moment and there is a great danger of them being relegated from the Premiership – a situation that would have catastrophic consequences for the future of Sunderland through lost income – so the situation has wider ramifications than just a bad decision or the guilt or otherwise of this young man.  Maybe the Club decided that it was important that Johnson be allowed to continue to play since his skills would be crucial in helping Sunderland win games and so avoid relegation. Or maybe they were just being sympathetic towards the player since he seems a personable young man. But, whatever  the reason for the Club’s actions the whole issue has now spread its tentacles wider than just the guilt or innocence of Adam Johnson.  The Club is in turmoil, a key player has been lost, Johnson’s potentially huge value on the transfer market is in tatters – which in turn means that the club’s investment in him is now money down the drain, Sunderland are without a CEO, the witch hunt is on for the Club’s Board and last but not least this will be having a huge effect on the playing squad. It is a distraction for the manager and players – something that they do not need at a crucial time for the team as they battle for survival in the top tier of English football.

Bob Stokoe's Cup Final dance captured in stone at
Sunderland's ground. Now the club is in dire straits.
Bob Stokoe - an honourable man - would be mortified.
It’s all very sad – especially so for one of the very great teams of English football, a team with an immensely rich and proud history. Over the years I have seen Sunderland play on many occasions; when I was a teenager and they visited Preston to play my home team Preston North End I can still remember the wonderful sound of thousands of Geordie voices singing the traditional Geordie song “Blaydon Races” as their fans cheered their team on. I can still name some of their players from that era and, like thousands of others remember the magical dance that their manager Bob Stokoe famously did at the end of a magnificent Cup Final in1973 when Sunderland narrowly defeated the much fancied Leeds United. Stokoe’s obvious joy for his team is commemorated in a statue of Stokoe which stands outside the Sunderland ground and the event is one of the great moments of English football history and folk-lore. And now this once great club are mired in this nightmare situation.

The rights and wrongs of the Johnson case do not especially concern me –sufficed to say that without doubt the young man is guilty, so that should be an end to it. But from where I sit, it seems to me there is a lot of cant and hypocrisy about. The media and social media vents its self righteous spleen against Johnson and his club but do not look around to see the monster that we (and especially the media in all its guises) have created in our modern society. We have a society where celebrity status is prized and idolized more than almost anything; where young women pose for endless “selfies”; where scantily dressed and often drunk young women parade through any city centre any night of the week, where we avidly watch and idolize Hollywood stars and where our cinema and TV screens are increasingly filled with soft porn dressed up as the “real world”; and where young men like Johnson suddenly find themselves in possession of so much money and fame that they are indeed idols who are worshipped by teenagers and indeed grown adults (I hesitate to say mature adults). Given this scenario it seems to me that we should not find it terribly surprising that this sort of thing happens. It is almost the direct result of the social monster that we have allowed to be created. 
Old Zeus loved to charm young ladies- here he is with
Alcmena, the wife of Amphitryon

The ancient Greek’s recognised and wrote about it in their Greek myths. They told of immortal Gods who preyed upon innocent young mortal maidens and of narcissistic young mortals seeking out the Gods. Indeed, we get the word narcissist from the name of Narcissus, the young man who couldn’t stop looking at himself in reflected in the pond – he was the original “selfie”! And the lesson of all these Greek myths was always the same – it will end in tears. So whilst Adam Johnson deserves everything that is coming to him, maybe the ancient Greeks would have recognised what was going to happen: a young footballing God, like a Greek God he can have anything he wants.  He has wealth, fame and indeed a kind of power over his acolytes beyond measure; everything is possible for him. He is idolised by everyone and perhaps especially so by young female fans who will do anything for his attention and to live in his godly aura.  They hang on his every word and action and want to pose for selfies with him, and to show off to their peers and the circles within which they move. Yes, the ancient Greeks would have recognised this storyline instantly – they would have accurately foretold what would happen. This is the world that we and our media have created; a modern version of a Greek myth and like all similar myths it all ends in tears. So, yes, while ultimately it is Johnson who must pay the price for abusing the position of trust that went with his age and position, in my view there is much cant and hypocrisy around in the aftermath to this sad debacle. Just maybe Johnson, too, is as much a victim in all this as the girl in question, as are their respective families, his football club and indeed the society which we have helped to create. As my mother would have said “If you play with fire then expect to get burned!”

But to return to my main point – the decision that Sunderland FC and CEO Margaret Byrne  made. Whatever consideration’s they had – be they commercial, ethical, personal or legal – the case highlights the problems that we have in today’s world where the demands of commerce, the media, politics and the rest can all compromise or impinge upon ethical considerations or muddy the waters when considering what is right or wrong. I’m sure that any CEO or similar would – probably rightly - argue that their first loyalty and responsibility is to the Board of directors and the shareholders. I suppose this in effect was what underpinned the comment that I overheard in the cafe - namely “You always have to ask the question is it commercially good for business not whether it is right or wrong”.  But if this is true then there is always the potential for conflict and for things to go badly wrong as they have at Sunderland. One only has to look at a number of high profile cases in the UK and elsewhere in recent months where justifiable “business decisions” based upon sound financial/legal reasoning, have been found wanting when displayed in the public opinion domain. The tax liabilities of huge corporations might be soundly based upon a strict commercial interpretation of financial law and etiquette but as, for example, Google and Amazon have found out these are distinctly unpopular in the court of public opinion – they are perceived to be wrong or unfair or unjust. Similarly, the working conditions and practices of Sports Direct (see blog: “Buy one get one free: 17th Dec 2015) have been called into question at the highest level; only this week the owner of Sports Direct, Mike Ashley has been summoned to answer questions to a Parliamentary Committee. The common denominator of all these examples and others is that the company concerned made based their decisions upon reasons which were, as the man in the cafe said, “commercially good for business not whether [they were] right or wrong”.  
Margaret Byrne before her world crashed
Of course, in the end any CEO, like Margaret Byrne can rightly comment that his or her first responsibility is to the Board and the shareholders and in a commercial company the name of the game is maximising profitability. I have absolutely no doubt that whatever the basis of the final decision regarding the continued playing of footballer Adam Johnson at Sunderland  Margaret Byrne and her colleagues acted as they saw it in the best interests of the football club – they were trying to maximise their investment by continuing to play him. Whether that was ultimately right, just or ethical is quite another thing.

My own feeling however is that ultimately the basic test of the validity of any decision or policy cannot, and must not be commercial good but rather whether it is right, wrong, fair or just. Any other criteria it seems to me will always, potentially, be  open to scrutiny, censure or criticism - as Sunderland F.C. have found in the last few days.

And this situation does not only arise in the commercial world; governments can, and do, act in the same way as commercial companies. Indeed, we are regularly appalled, amazed or speechless at the actions of governments. Many in the UK consider that the government’s stance on welfare benefits, immigration, refugees, nuclear deterrents, security and terrorism, and above all involvement in middle east conflicts to be in varying degrees unjust, unfair, unethical or immoral. Whether they are or not is a moot point but the government would argue, just like the CEO, that their decisions and policies are based upon their requirement to meet their wider responsibilities and objectives; for example people, will need to accept that their freedoms might be limited by higher levels of surveillance, tighter airport controls etc. because the greater good is to keep the population safe from terrorism not whether such a measure is morally acceptable. 

This is worrying. It is a sad fact that throughout western societies (and maybe eastern ones too) we have, to a large extent, ceased to ask the question whether actions or policies – be they commercial, social, political, or any other aspect of national life - are right or wrong. We use other criteria to judge their worth. Two recent examples show this to perfection.
The City & Wall Street were unable to
discriminate between profits, bonuses and
ethical considerations.

Firstly, in 2008 the world experienced an almost catastrophic failure of its financial systems – and both as western societies and individuals we are still suffering the repercussions of that failure. Since that time there has been mass vilification of bankers and those involved in the financial world. This criticism may or may not be justified;  but what certainly cannot be disputed is that some poor decisions were made at the time both by those employed in this sector and indeed by governments across the world in monitoring and reacting to the situation.  Nor can it be disputed that such was the pressure and greed evident in the pre-2008 world of high finance that both individually and corporately the question of whether a policy or action was right or wrong stopped being asked. The name of the game was profit and this trumped all other considerations of ethics or morality. For the ordinary man and woman in the street they might not have understood the technicalities of what went wrong with the financial world but I have absolutely no doubt that they all felt, as I did, that there was something wrong with the manner in which financial decisions were and had been made. Further, I suspect that every one of these ordinary people recognised that there was something awry with the values that seemed to appertain in the financial world of the time.
Karl Rove - looks a nice guy, but
his comments suggest that he is,
like many in power, morally bankrupt

One step beyond this is this is, and even more worrying is when our leaders cease to ask if something is right or wrong. When this occurs then we are only a very small step away from a dystopian society where we are all in danger of losing our moral bearings. Just prior to the 2008 financial crash Karl Rove a senior aide to President George W Bush was quoted as saying, in relation to the war on terror in the middle east that “When we act we create our own reality”. If one stops to think about that comment it is truly horrifying for implicit in it is the understanding that decisions and actions can be justified not on issues of right, wrong, fairness, justice or any other ethical basis – but rather upon the whim of whoever is in charge. The president or the generals make up the rules. Given this scenario any policy or action can be justified, for moral questions can cease to be asked; all questioning and discussion about right or wrong is sidelined. We quickly reach the Orwellian world of Big Brother, propaganda, a Ministry of Truth, newspeak, doublethink, totalitarianism, Room 101, and logically and morally bankrupt slogans such as “War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery” or “Ignorance is Strength”. It is the world of Stalin, of Hitler and of Mao Zedong - they certainly made their own realities oblivious and unmoved by the views of the rest of the world or indeed their own societies.
Orwell clearly could foretell the future in more ways than simply
tell the fictional story of "1984" - this quote describes the
world of today perfectly.

If one wants proof of this consider two small examples from or recent history. Firstly, in December 2005 British Prime Minister Tony Blair was asked if torture could be justified – this in relation to the war on terror following 9/11. Blair was clear in his answer: “Torture cannot be justified in any set of circumstances”. Eighteen days later in later December 2005 Blair was asked if he approved of rendition (i.e. the practice of sending a criminal or terrorist suspect covertly to be interrogated in a country with less rigorous regulations for the humane treatment of prisoners – a place where torture might be used). For any blog readers who are not aware of the significance of the US facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba it is worth pointing out that those suspected of terrorism cannot by law be tortured in the USA (or in the UK or any other western country) it is against the law of that country. So prisoners who are to be tortured are sent – rendered - to a place where torture is not against the law – in the case of the USA this is Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Suspected terrorists held by the UK might be rendered to a place like Egypt. But to return to Blair. His answer as to if he approved of rendition was “Well it all depends on what you mean by rendition. If it is something that is unlawful then I totally disapprove of it; if it is lawful, then I don’t disapprove of it”. Reading his two comments and reading the second carefully one might be forgiven for thinking Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, doublethink and newspeak have already arrived. Blair might be making a perfectly legitimate political statement but his comments for me indicate a questionable moral position - he was undoubtedly making his own set of rules to justify any course of action.  It would be laughable if it were not so deadly serious. It is Karl Rove’s comment made real: “When we act we create our own reality” and in Tony Blair’s world, as in the world of George W Bush, it has terrible  surreal quality about it

But, secondly, the context to all this might be found in the immediate aftermath of the Bush administration when considerable anxiety was expressed both in the USA and across the wider world about the various policies of torture that had allegedly been enacted by the USA and its allies especially at the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. During this period of soul searching hundreds of US government emails and memos where scrutinised and a disturbing feature emerged telling of how government, at its most senior levels, thought. It  quickly became apparent that highly educated and senior administrators, aides, military personal and politicians – all respectable, middle aged and otherwise moderate people – exchanged complicated, erudite and thoughtful memos and mails about the pros and cons of torturing people. Never once, in any of these communications was the question asked by anyone, from the President downwards, if torturing people was the right or wrong thing to do. There were questions and comments as to its efficiency, of how instrumentally functional it was in fulfilling its goal, its expediency, its reliability, of what procedures worked best but never once, in any of the memos or emails, did any of these otherwise respectable, ordinary, often church going people ask whether the practice was right, wrong, evil, just or acceptable.
Demonstration at the White House. President Obama promised to close
 the facility when he came to  power. Now, almost eight years later, as his term
comes to an end, he is still unable to do so; his plans thwarted by US politicians.
One can draw one's own conclusions from that fact about the ability of
US politicians to discriminate between morally right and wrong actions. They
have the same moral blind spot when it comes to gun law legislation.

Given this I can only conclude that there is something wrong with a society that does not ask these questions of itself.  If issues of right and wrong can be sidelined so easily in the world of commerce or politics I wonder how easily we ourselves might dismiss them in our ordinary everyday lives? I increasingly wonder if we are losing – or indeed have already lost – the ability to articulate what we think right or wrong, or good or evil, or what a good society is. For if we make decisions in our everyday lives, or in our commercial dealings or in our government without reference to what is right or wrong, what is good or evil, what is just or unjust, or what is acceptable or unacceptable then we have lost the ability to recognise what sort of society we desire. And when that happens then in my view Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is already upon us and we should all be very afraid.