To many if not most readers of this blog, big business is boring. Small business is boring. Management is boring. Journalism is rather boring. . . And I have, by now, written so many posts on the subject of irrational and self-destructive censorship by editors and moderators at Guardian News & Media that that’s almost certainly boring, too.
So why am I posting in this spot about a widely admired Observer columnist on management whose job was axed in a recent round of economy measures at GNM?
Not just because, writing at the top of his form, this writer — Simon Caulkin — is a fine literary essayist whose work has been garlanded with the most coveted awards in his sphere. Anyone who cares about literature should also be outraged because he frequently used that column for incisive criticism of the disregard by large corporations, government departments and other powerful institutions of basic human and cultural values – and frequently, of common sense as well.
For an idea of what I mean there, look at the brief extracts I’m pasting in at the bottom of this blog entry, chosen at random from the dozens of columns by him that I’ve admired over the years. The first is about the vogue for mercantilist window-dressing that includes the pious phrase ‘corporate social responsibility’. The second is about fakery in general becoming business-as-usual for business.
A petition drawn up by one distressed fan of the column was signed by an impressive list of ninety authorities on management from both sides of the Atlantic, and elsewhere, as you’ll see by clicking on the link to this headline: ‘Academics threaten Observer boycott over ousted columnist, as newspaper faces uncertain future with GNM’.
The Observer refused to print the petition – or, as I’ve now given up hoping, reconsider its decision to drop the Caulkin column. Since that newspaper is effectively run by its owner, GNM, that hardly comes as a shock to some of us vanishingly trivial figures, bloggers recently victimised most bizarrely by the group’s managers. It felt like par for the course to read Philip Whiteley, chairman of the Human Capital Forum and the leader of the protest, saying to a journalists’ web site tipped off by Private Eye about this fight:
“I find it shocking that The Observer did not print our letter, given that as a ‘liberal’ paper it would presumably oppose the suppression of dissent and debate in public authorities or major corporations.”
The Observer’s continuation of columns by comedians David Mitchell and Dara O’Briain futher angered him: “Many of the letter’s signatories complain that The Observer is more interested in celebrities than the weighty issues of the day; and in breaking up the content into bite-sized pieces.
“Many formerly loyal readers feel patronised or ignored. It’s interesting to note that titles that have not gone down-market, such as the Financial Times, Economist and Wall Street Journal, and have not been so badly affected by the downturn in advertising,” he said.
“The editors of the Guardian/Observer seem to be insistent upon cheapening content, then wondering why they can’t charge for it any more. They have responded to decline by guaranteeing further decline.“
Does the organisation have no imagination whatsoever? Doesn’t it understand that flexibility practically defines the new online media with which it has been grappling? That one option it should surely have tried was an online version of the column – perhaps dedicating a specialised segment of its site to discussions of it? Search engines bring up so many complaints about GNM’s decision to wield the guillotine, in this case, that it’s hard to imagine such an experiment having anything but encouraging results.
At the very least, shouldn’t GNM have run the petition and let readers debate the termination of the column? Not just because we see opportunities for such discussion as a basic right in this age of blogging, of which GNM’s Comment-is-Free site is part, … supposedly a free speech forum — about which it boasts so often and proudly?
What GNM has been emphasising to the world repeatedly about its push into online publishing is that the scale of this drive is massive. Would finding a way to fit a management column into the grand enterprise have been so far beyond the wit of its management?
The shaky marriage of capitalism and virtue
Simon Caulkin, management editor,
Sunday 29 October 2006
… It’s true that the business case for corporate social responsibility (CSR) has never been more forcibly put, or more widely believed, including, genuinely, by company executives.
‘There is a business case for CSR, but it is much less important or influential than many proponents of civil regulation believe.’ Thus, despite the new conventional wisdom, and earnest endeavours by researchers to prove it, there is no evidence to show that ‘responsible’ companies are more profitable than irresponsible ones, let alone a causal link between the two. Neither, alas, does socially responsible investing produce higher returns than the ordinary variety.
CSR is shareholder capitalism’s guilty conscience, but it leaves the justification of shareholder primacy intact. And some guilt it can’t assuage: in the late 1990s, one company was highly rated by ethical investment funds and garlanded with environmental awards. Its name was Enron.
Why honesty is the most profitable policy
Simon Caulkin, management editor
Sunday August 5, 2007
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, you may remember, declared that the Gulf War (the first one) took place only on television. […] Far from being just an aberration at the BBC, faking is now revealed to be endemic: it’s the way TV works.
We should hardly be surprised. Faking it – hiding one version of reality with another – is increasingly what management is about; profit is the product of an arbitrage between the company’s image of reality and yours. Consider Penelope Cruz’s eyelashes, or any number of airbrushed model images. Almost all advertising and much media production is faked in some sense.
Of course, some companies, pleading the pressure of the capital markets, will claim they have no choice but to fake it. Investors don’t care how the numbers are made, only that they are. This is not so much the Jean Baudrillard as the Groucho Marx school of management. As he put it: ‘The secret of success is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake those, you’ve got it made.’