Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Bought and sold?

A while back, I sat in the audience while a friend gave his professorial inaugural address (the closest I'll ever get to one). A business studies scholar, his final assertion was that Business Schools should be 'about', rather than 'for' business. Critical distance is essential: without dispassionate critique, neither businesses, the systems that generate them nor the public good are served. The evidence to the contrary is clear for all to see in the great recession: a global finance system populated by MBA-holding elites, advised by academic consultants from the most prestigious universities, and yet not one of them saw the contradictions inherent in the system. Here's a striking discussion from the documentary Inside Job:

A couple of things reminded me of this today. One was seeing that Warwick University's Business School has a satellite unit in the Shard. No doubt to their management and neoliberal staff this looks like a prestigious address close to those with money to burn consulting them. To me it looks like a public declaration of love and fealty to the money rather than a critical and independent perspective. It also looks like willy-waving competitiveness of the kind only the silliest institutions engage in.

The other conflict of interest that caught my eye today was the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Education Journalism Awards. This afternoon, I taught a Media Ethics class about PR: its origins, its methods, its motives and the ethical context of public relations. It boils down to one thing: money. Public Relations operatives are answerable to their employers and the law. Anything not illegal is therefore permitted in pursuit of profit, with the caveat that one should not get caught.

As Nick Davies' Flat Earth News demonstrated several years ago, PR success is measured in news column inches. If you can get your promotional activity reported as news, you've won. It's relatively easy now: journalists are time-poor, resource-poor and under pressure. They are hosed down daily by a shower of easy 'stories' which are actually adverts. One of the jobs of journalism is to filter out the PR guff. And yet: I watched Twitter tonight as reputable journalists from the Times Higher Education Supplement – people whose work I respect – celebrated winning awards from an organisation whose job it is to fool them. The EJA Awards themselves are a PR stunt to make the industry look more reputable, and it's working. They also attempt to close the distance between journalism and PR copy, which is disingenuous to say the very least.

As far as I can see, a journalist waving a CIPR award is a journalist who doesn't mind being tamed: the trophy may as well be a collar with a bell on it, plus a tag with 'If found, please return to CIPR'. They're being used to dignify a dubious organisation and they've lost critical distance in the same way that Warwick has sold out to finance capitalism and that economist sold himself to the corporations. How can we trust an article by a journalist who has accepted such an award? How confident can we be that they'll apply their critical judgement to material that crosses their desks?

In the interests of full disclosure, I'm in the process of writing a commissioned article for the THES. I wonder if this blog post will magically lead to its withdrawal…


Alan said...

I'm sure you're right, Aidan. About 15 years ago, I was a lecturer in an institution which had just merged its divisions of management studies and business studies. I argued against "business schools" and in favour of "school of business and management studies", saying that I studied management in much the same way as an historian specialising in modern Italy studied fascism. (I was a former shop steward who gained a Ph.D. at the Dark Place at the age of 51.)
The "sociological" study of management is getting squashed in favour of making the academy the handmaid of capitalism.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand this post.

It's asserted that that Public Relations operatives are answerable to their employers and the law." Well, yes, as are all employees of any kind. So what?

It's also claimed that "PR success is measured in news column inches". Well, speaking as one who has spent many years in PR, I can assure you that this is not the case. I'm sure that (say) Rolex would rather have one inch in (say) the Financial Times than two inches in (say) the Daily Express.

I would have though this was fairly basic stuff, and I find it depressing that someone who teaches "a Media Ethics class about PR" should so misunderstand and misrepresent the nature of business.