This phenomenon of one rule for us and another rule for them exists despite all in authority insisting it should and does not.
I have the honour of representing private investigators at a high level. In general, these are professionals who comply with legal rules, which include not harassing people, not bugging them and complying with the data protection act, which means keeping personal data confidential on pain of a fine or imprisonment, which is as it should be. Our work is focused at obtaining evidence for use by a client, often in a court case, and until such a case is heard the information is kept secure and confidential.
But a press reporter? He can camp outside your front door, obtain information almost any way he likes, shout at and bully you in a doorstep ambush interview and then tell millions of people what is ‘allegedly’ true, ruining your life in the pursuit of profit.
Guess which one is supposed to be licenced and regulated, and which one bleats about even signing a charter that would influence his behaviour – and perchance make it as ethical as the other profession?
And my next bleat about double standards probably takes me back to work, but not just mine.
In many organisational statements I have heard, there was a saying. That was ‘Our people are our most important asset’. I have consistently discovered in my own experience that there is a caveat to that declaration that dare not be spoken. The full statement reads, ‘Our people are our most important asset – but we can’t trust them an inch. We have to monitor, measure, threaten and cajole to make sure they do what we tell them’.
This kind of measurement approach has created many amusing and unexpected side effects. In the policing sector they introduced a system whereby a key performance indicator was how quickly a 999 operator answered a 999 call. Easy to establish – just create a computer system which monitors when the phone starts ringing, and when the receiver is lifted. Hey presto, we answer all 999 calls within 2 seconds. Hurrah!
So what happens when the 999 call is picked up in 2 seconds and then the phone is immediately slammed down again? Not that that ever happened, but the original goal remains achieved. Success! More soberly, what happened when a swiftly picked up 999 call was poorly dealt with – major investigation. What happened when a 999 phone call was picked up in the dread 2.5 seconds? Major investigation, disciplinary action, gnashing of teeth, etc. Meetings asking how this could possibly happen, how we can improve the attitude of those damnable staff, how can we automate the sub-2 second method?
And all the time, people try to find ways of making the goal appear achieved, without doing the work that was intended. I remember that as a result of some sterling police work in one town, no bicycles were ever stolen. No crime complaint was ever submitted to show a bike had been nicked. That said, people in the area lost hundreds of bikes. A different matter altogether and one which was never, ever measured.
Ultimately, all that I have said so far is about ethics, how people behave, or are supposed to behave.
I have a theory, and it is this. When you put an adjective in front of the word ‘ethics’, you immediately declare you have no ethics at all. For me, ethical behaviour means telling the truth, being open and honest and above board, and seeking the truth. Putting the word ‘legal’ in front of it allows you to vehemently protect a dodgy client from the truth, and even use disingenuous terms – no, let’s call it lying – to further hide it. Let’s not talk of banking ethics, where HSBC protected drug lords and terrorists until caught out. Let’s not talk of press ethics, where ‘freedom of the press’ is confused by the press ‘taking liberties’.
However, on that last point, the one thing that really dismays me is that without those what I would call ‘breaches’ of ethics, the systems within which those common ethics are breached wouldn’t work. If lawyers couldn’t pretend their clients were innocent the courts would clog up because no criminal would use a lawyer. The banks wouldn’t be used by terrorists and we’d have no way at all of finding their money. The press wouldn’t, on the rare occasions that they do so, be able to open our eyes to matters of true concern – as opposed to what Kim and Khloe are wearing or not wearing this week.
Readers – when it comes to fairness and ethical behaviour, sometimes I reckon we are too clever. And at other times, I reckon we just aren’t clever enough.