Sunday, 21 November 2010

No Smoky Room, No Smoking Gun: Corporate priorities in the case of BP

Reportage relating to the the US commission into BP's catastrophic oil spillage:

BP, firms did not shirk safety for money - panel

Well, that is the headline, but what was actually said is:

"To date we have not seen a single instance where a human being made a conscious decision to favour dollars over safety," the commission's Chief Counsel Fred Bartlit said at a meeting exploring the causes of the Gulf of Mexico spill.

This is a general problem in corporate governance: heads of corporations operate by setting incentives, and really don't want to know (certainly not undeniably) the dirty details of how objectives are met. No-one needs to say 'prioritise profit over safety'. We know that safety regimes on oil rigs are dreadful, and it's pretty clear that the reason is one of cost (what else? Love of carnage?). Budgets are set, regulators are captured. Of course profit has priority over safety: the safest course would be to go out of business, and the reason that course is not taken is profit. The rest is haggling, and the 'Health and Safety' side in that arbitration is very obviously not going to get the better of that arbitration.

To take a slight tangent 'Heath and Safety', thanks to a media campaign which goes in tandem with the anti-EU-regulation crusade, has becone a dirty word in common parlance, not by coincidence. Both campaigns resemble that mounted in the early 80's, most notably by the Sun, against the 'Loony Left' and what would now be called 'political correctness', particularly in their cherry-picking and gross exaggeration and distortion of anecdotal accounts - 'baa baa green sheep' and other stories. Poltical correctness is now a confirmed third member of the unholy trinity, though opposition to it is less obviously (or less directly) related to the interests of business.

"The possibility of becoming the most powerful man on the planet is irresistibly beguiling to many rich men"

Robert Gavron has some useful comments on Murdoch's bid to take full ownership of Sky News, though he is either being diplomatic in that nakedly arbitrary 'present company excepted' kind of way, or he has fallen prey to the 'I've met him and he seems qute affable' fallacy, or he's placing quite a bit of weight on the term 'comparatively' in his record as a media proprietor in the UK will stand up comparatively well.

Still, the sentiment quoted in this post's title showed a refreshingly forthright realism, in contrast to the usual approach of the commentariat which is to regard this kind of observation as lurid and jejune. Maybe it is, but if so, it would appear that reality exhibits a pronounced lurid and jejune bias.

Lords Hansard 4 Nov 2010, Column 1783

Lord Gavron:

Rupert Murdoch was described the other day by the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, as the most powerful man on the planet. I have known Rupert Murdoch for a great many years. I have found him to be straight, loyal and honourable. He is a man of his word. Although I have frequently, if not usually, disagreed with him, his record as a media proprietor in the UK will stand up comparatively well to analysis by future historians.

However, I am against his plan to acquire the rest of Sky. People have said, "He already controls Sky, so buying the rest will make no difference". We can all talk about the difference, but Rupert Murdoch is not the sort of man who would spend £7.8 billion buying shares which make no difference. Sky, as the Economist of 16 October said, is Britain's leading media company. It has almost 10 million subscribers and almost £6 billion of annual revenue-already almost double that of the BBC. Apparently, we spend more on Sky than we spend on bread. In addition to its 39 per cent of Sky, News Corporation's four newspapers already have 37 per cent of our total national newspaper circulation-a share that is as much as the next two biggest newspaper groups combined.

Next March, Rupert Murdoch will be 80. He enters what I heard rather unattractively defined last week as "the drop zone". He has said that when his health gives out he will get out of the way. He has made plans for succession. However, history tells us that when a great tycoon goes, his assets tend to change hands. Rupert Murdoch has not maximised his corporation's profits. He is sentimental about newspapers. There are media experts who think that News Corporation, valued in the market at some $38 billion, is undervalued by almost 30 per cent. So it is an attractive takeover prospect in financial terms alone. In addition, the possibility of becoming the most powerful man on the planet is irresistibly beguiling to many rich men. Quite a few of them have access to, or can raise, the means to acquire the company. We could end up with a Russian oligarch, an Arab prince, or a hedge fund billionaire. Whoever it is might be honourable and principled-or they might not be.

We have the power to prevent a media baron from extending his empire. We have tended not to use that power. I hope that this time we will. Even if we do, my major concern remains. It is very difficult to stop someone who has the money from buying a public company. It is very difficult to say, "We let Rupert Murdoch have it, but we like you less, so we are going to stop you from buying it". The potential influence of News Corporation in the United Kingdom is enormous. The damage that could be done if it fell into the wrong hands is incalculable. We should be extremely worried.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Hunter and Hunted: the two pathologists of David Kelly

The latest grudging drip-feed of information about the Kelly case was the release of pathology and toxicology reports. Searchable text of the pathology report is here).

I'll concentrate mainly on the pathology document. It appears to tell us little of interest that we didn't already know - as those who decided to publish it must have been well aware. There are however a few interesting aspects:

The report's content is at odds with the remarks Dr Hunt recently made to the press (the 'textbook suicide' remarks) which were widely reported (not for the first - or the last - time) by all the usual commentators as laying to rest 'conspiracy theories' about Dr Kelly's death.

Those remarks were I believe made with the agreement of Hunt's Home Office employers. In fact it strains credulity to imagine that Hunt came up with the idea himself and the HO just granted permission. I think 'at the insistence and under the supervision of' would probably describe the facts better than 'with the agreement of '. Indeed, Hunt must have known that he was breaking confidentiality in making those statements, and he was sanctioned by the GMC for doing so without the permission of the coroner in the case.

So this later Hunt appears to have been under some pressure to make public statements which he must have been aware would be a breach of fundamental professional ethics unless properly authorised (which they weren't). One lever for the exertion of such pressure might have been his ongoing investigation by a Disciplinary Committee which via a Byzantine layering of official bodies - the Pathology Delivery Board under the Police, Science and Forensics Unit of the National Policing Improvement Agency - is evidently basically controlled by the Home Office. Hunt, under pressure, seems to have been wlling to blur the distinction between the roles of coroner and expert witness, since his scripted remarks give the impression that he is in a position to draw conclusions about matters other than the direct cause of death.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Jonathan Evans #2: Like murderous intrigue? Join MI5!
(Also, conspiracy in ancient Rome)

As part of the recent campaign to project a more touchy-feely image (as opposed to the sneaky-watchy, breaky-entery, even hurty-killy image that has somehow emerged over the years), Jonathan Evans, the latest head of MI5, has been chatting to Martha Kearney:

MI5 boss attracted by 'intrigue' of I, Claudius - The head of MI5 had admitted he was attracted by "the intrigue" of I, Claudius as a boy as he disclosed the details of his classical education background."
(- Telegraph)

Since the Telegraph (and the Today programme, which drew my attention to the story), have emphasised the idea - not so far as I can tell explicitly reflected in the content of the interviews - that Evans was attracted to the Service by a fondness for tales of intrigue and murder in Imperial Rome, I'll happily if flippanty take their sensationalist spin a tiny step further, hence the title of this post.

On coming across this titbit, I was reminded of a book that emphasises the ubiquity of conspiracy in ancient Rome, especially perhaps in the Imperial period: Victoria Emma Pagán, Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History. The book starts well, emphasising for example the peculiar problems that conspiracy poses for historians:

because conspiracy is a hidden, secret event, it resists—defies—exposition. In recording any conspiracy, important facts always remain in the shadows; to tell the tale of a conspiracy is to guess at a very great deal. So how does one reveal something that is deliberately kept secret? How does one speak with any authority on matters about which one knows little or nothing for certain? Of course, all historians face uncertainty and ignorance about their subject matter at some point. For all these reasons, I maintain that a conspiracy is an ideal circumstance in which to observe how a historian confronts the limits of knowledge.

I would agree with this for the most part, though I would go further and suggest that these problems create the need for a distinctive epistemic which deals with the deviant conditions of the conspiratorial realm - 'opposed' or 'adversary' epistemics. This is analogous in some ways to 'non-ideal theory' in political philosophy - that is, theory which, in taking account of the radical complications caused by recalcitrant people who refuse to behave as one's simple, 'ideal' theory would prefer, may well become a very different beast. I'd suggest that forensics will be a useful source here, though I think I mean this in a broader sense than Pagán when she writes: Forensics, ballistics, acoustics, optics: every available scientific method has been applied and reapplied to the evidence. My conception of forensics is not merely as another word for forensic science as seen (so I understand, sniff) in those CSI programmes, but as encompassing the whole theory of what it is that detectives and prosecutors do, or rather what they ought to do, and how they ought to go about doing it.

[UPDATE 4 Nov 2010: Actually, not just detectives and prosecutors but also perhaps courts, though the standard and burden of proof need not be the same. Those are determined largely by pragmatic concerns such as the costs of trying or punishing the innocent.]