Thursday, August 24, 2006

Truth, lies and spin

Following up from my critique of Corporate Social Responsibility, which reads a bit like an application to join the Chicago School, this time around I've had a chance to show my warm and fuzzy side.

Here is journal entry number two for Governance and the International Firm:

Last week I saw fantastic film about the decline of truth and the rise of spin. “Thank You For Smoking” is a dark comedy focused on a tobacco lobbyist and the brazen approach he takes to the ethics of his work, and more importantly to the truth.

As becomes evident during the film, the art of public relations and spin relies heavily on attempts to influence public opinion through distortions of the truth. The objective nature of truth is questioned, and instead truth is repositioned as merely another subjective perspective on a set of facts. In the real world of lobbying and opinion shaping, the strategy is generally two-fold: firstly, it is necessary to impugn the reliability and reputation of genuinely independent and reliable sources of information; and secondly to generate supposedly factual material of your own which will be perceived as meritorious. The lead character in the film, Nick Naylor, works at an organisation that calls itself the Tobacco Research Institute, an entity whose entire purpose is to construct distorted, misleading and highly deceptive information which can then masquerade as truth. The findings of such an entity are unsurprising: the addictive nature of tobacco is questioned, as is the causal relationship between smoking and ill-health.

It’s not just the business world which has adopted such practices. In the realm of politics and international relations, where information is hard to verify, distortion and manipulation has become commonplace in attempts to influence public opinion. The most notable example is the attempts to link the events of September 11 2001 with the former governing regime in Iraq. Factually, there has been no evidence to link the hijackers to Iraq: they were predominantly Saudi Arabian. The misnomer about the identity of the hijackers arises because of the proliferation of credible experts who either refuse to strongly assert the truth, or who deliberately mislead. US columnist Ruth Rosen has observed the trends in US public opinion on this issue:

You might say, "But everyone knows it was al-Qaeda." And you'd be right, but do most Americans really know just who those terrorists were or that they had no connection to Iraq -- that not a single one of them even came from that country? It doesn't sound very important until you realize that various polls over the last five years have reported from 20% to 50% of Americans still believe Iraqis were on those planes. (They were not.) As of early 2005, according to a Harris poll, 47% of Americans were convinced that Saddam Hussein actually helped plan the attack and supported the hijackers. And in February, 2006, according to a unique Zogby poll of American troops serving in Iraq, "85% said the U.S. mission is mainly ‘to retaliate for Saddam's role in the 9-11 attacks'; 77% said they also believe the main or a major reason for the war was ‘to stop Saddam from protecting al Qaeda in Iraq.'"

It’s interesting to speculate as to the cause of this propensity to play fast and loose with the truth. It seems to parallel a similar trend that sees traditional authority figures no longer possessing the moral authority they once commanded, and hence ideas of credibility and expertise are in flux. Note, for example, that journalists have low levels of public trust (much of which is justified), and hence they are less likely to be seen as a truthful voice. Academia is also frequently under attack, with accusations of bias and questioning of motives (often caused by questions over the source of funding). Conversely, laypeople on the internet are authority figures in the ascendancy, often despite a lack of full disclosure about their identity, nor scrutiny of their expertise. Similarly, so-called “think tanks” are well regarded, a phenomena more prolific in the United States, but quickly spreading to Australia. Citizens, and their alter ego consumers, are changing in their patterns of trust, and this is creating opportunities for malevolent influences to take advantage of this.

The demonstrated malleability of public opinion gives rise to a series of challenging ethical questions for businesspeople, particularly those in the field of public relations. Firms have every right to articulate and defend a position on the merits of its product. Within a vibrant civil society, it is expected that firms will have an active voice in public discourse. This contribution, however, needs to be constructive rather than destructive: its intention must be to properly inform consumers rather than misinform them.

Whilst there is general agreement that outright lies are inexcusable in a public relations context, the consensus must extend further. Deliberate deceptions and masking of the truth is inexcusable as well. It’s one thing to dispute interpretations of facts, but it’s quite another to undermine the facts themselves. Another public relations tactic that should be frowned upon is the phenomena of “astro-turfing”, where corporations start and fund supposedly grass-roots organisations who publicly voice support for the actions of a company. This act is little short of identity theft: assuming the role of someone that you are not for your own advantages. It’s an act of fraud on the general public.

Then we come to the issue of the sale and marketing of ‘sin’ products. One of the recurring scenes in the film involves a group of lobbyists who call themselves MOD: Merchants of Death. They are the chief lobbyists for the tobacco industry, the firearms industry, and the alcohol industry, whose products collectively cost over half a million lives in the US each year. The ethical question in the work that they do extends beyond merely a discussion of legitimate or illegitimate public relations tactics. It is the essence of the product they advocate that is under ethical question. At one point the lead character seeks sympathy for other ‘sin’ industries: the land mine manufacturer, baby seal poacher and sweat shop manager. Each of these suffers a similar existential ethical dilemma.

It is worth considering whether it is possible to remain ethical while selling these so-called sin products. Of course, it is possible that ones own ethical sensibility does not consider them to be sin products, in which case an ethical dilemma is avoided. Or alternatively, the ethical dilemma can be overcome (in the cases of tobacco and alcohol, at least) by drawing upon the liberal tradition of freedom of choice, leading to the conclusion that those who suffer the ill-effects of the products are doing so as a result of earlier choices that they have made. For most, however, the negative consequences of the product must give pause for thought.

Ultimately, the film fails to come to a satisfying answer to this question, perhaps because no satisfying answer short of halting production of various sin products exists, an outcome which itself would lead to questions about the ethics of prohibition. The line that various characters in the film use to justify their actions is that it’s “what I have to do to pay the mortgage”. This answer is nothing short of an intellectual sleight-of-hand given that it can be constantly used to shift the burden of ethical responsibility elsewhere, and because its usage is virtually unlimited: a drug dealer, protection racket gangster and corrupt policeman could all use the same defence. The comparison between these groups and their legal counterparts seems rather apt.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I do recall a story, the veracity of which I have never confirmed, of a doctor representing a tobacco company during an action brought by some smoking victims. On the stand he swore black and blue that there was no discernable link between his client's product and human disease. Frustrated by what appeared to be obvious deceit on the part of a medical professional, the other side asked if he were prepared to have a lie detector test, which he was, and he subsequently passed with flying colours.

The implication then is the rewards the doctor was receiving from his bosses had been enough for this individual to reprogram his belief system, or that he was very good at beating the machine. This phenomena is even better illustrated when one reads creationist magazines (yes, yes, I do need to get out more). Here you find fully qualified geologists, palaeontologists, biologists etc all supporting the position the world is less than 10,000 years old. These are not just long term, welded on believers (although I do wonder how on earth these individuals made it through their studies) but also recent converts who presumably had completely different ideas before their ‘road to Damascus’ moment. It must be a different sort of truth they seek through Christ. I find them all fascinating.