Monday, July 11, 2011

A morality tale for our times !

The sudden demise of the News of the World is a modern morality tale. It possesses all the necessary ingredients for a great fable of today. News International is an organisation that had begun to believe in its own invincibility, that it was '...too big to fail...' and that if it should ever face a threat to its hegemony, it could always look to its friends (and camp followers) in politics, to keep it out of harm's way. It incited a once-proud journalistic tradition to become sullied with a 'get a story, any story, at any costs' mentality, and it encouraged some of its employees to cut any corner, break any rule of 'best practice', avoid any of the checks and balances, which most decent journalists recognise as being integral to their trade. It dirtied its hands by associating itself with the grubby, dirty rain-coat brigade, men who would stoop to any level to get the information their paymasters wanted. So they would hack the message-boxes of the mobile phones of bereaved parents, murder victims, or the families of the victims of terror, to get scoops and stories which might earn them a few more quid. As one journo recently stated, ' Wapping you were only as good as your next story...'

Now, it seems that the entire public is up in arms at the degree of the scandals which are emerging from the outcome of this shameful tale. Police investigations are being promised, although many of the most shameful elements, certainly to those of us who were proper police officers in the past, will involve investigating the police themselves, for their part in accepting corrupt payments. We are advised that the watchdog put in place to oversee the activities of the Press will be given more powers, and that a number of people will be sent to gaol, for the part they have played in these scandals.

This story still has a long way to run and we should not be unduly surprised by other revelations that may emerge.

The underlying influence that has marked out this whole sorry saga, is the degree to which, the News of the World had jettisoned any semblance of integrity it might have once claimed to hold. Integrity is the mortar by which we cement together the ethical bricks in the moral walls with which we surround and protect our basic values and norms. Integrity or its absence, is what underpins all our actions and decisions, and determines how we will behave in any given set of circumstances.

In these modern times, where in the world of commerce and business, it seems that anything goes, and should be allowed to happen, as long as the end result is acquisition of a new story, at whatever cost in terms of the erosion of public taste, or the creation of yet more money, even in the most dubious of circumstances, integrity has become a much maligned concept.

It is instructive to observe how, as the standards of journalistic integrity have been undermined by a culture of 'anything goes', the same diminution of banking integrity has become more apparent. Where once, basic rules of conduct ruled the way in which journalists pursued their trade, the same went for bankers.

When every community of any size had at least one if not two financial services providers, each branch manager was required to take responsibility for the money he loaned, and to ensure its return, with interest, in due course. Once the real distinction between retail and wholesale banking disappeared after the 'Big Bang', and banks became the purveyors of financial products of largely dubious value, ignoring their fiduciary duties owed to their customers, then money merely became another commodity to be disposed of at will, regardless of the ability of the recipient to re-pay, because it no longer mattered. Banks had found marvellous new ways of packaging debt so that it could be sold on as investment-grade paper.

When you then paid bonuses of obscene proportions to young salespeople as an incentive for them to deliver even more loan activity, coupled with flaky insurance policy sales, and you had a recipe for disaster. Anyone with half an ounce of common sense could see the likely outcome, everyone that is apart from Gordon Brown and his cronies, who instead of reining in the banks, believed their snake-oil stories and allowed them a 'light-touch' regulatory regime.

During this time, anything remotely resembling integrity was jettisoned, as more and more greedy bastards piled in to the bonus culture offered by the banking sector, and more and more fraud and financial wrong-doing was practised, market prices were manipulated, insider dealing flourished, while the bankers paid themselves bigger and bigger bonuses for operating a failing market.

We are now all paying the price and it will be a millstone round our necks for years to come.

This is what happens when integrity, best practice, sound principles and downright fraud are allowed to become the leitmotif of the market concerned.

Whether in Wapping or Lombard Street, once you jettison the basic principles of integrity and best practice, you open yourselves up to levels of wrong-doing you would once have thought impossible. Wherever you look in our business culture, the '...get the money at all costs...' mentality prevails, and the damage it does to our reputation is immeasurable.

Whether this lesson will get through to the upper floors of the banks is a question no-one can answer!

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