Saturday, 9 July 2011

Hopey, changey stuff

What a mad week. I'll try not to repeat too much of what other people have said but first a few thoughts:

1. the speed with which News Intl was able to provide emails to the police surely demonstrates that News Corp knew far more about the extent of hacking, and who was responsible. This should become a Corp gov issue for News Corp now. James Murdoch should not be considered untouchable.

2. the Bskyb deal must now be too toxic for the govt to allow. It simply won't matter even if Ofcom gives it the all clear, because public opinion has hardened. It's v like Iraq inquiries in that respect. If the answer the public expect isn't provided this will lead to greater anger.

3. isn't it great that, for once, cynicism about what you can do in politics has been overtaken by events? Last week taking on Murdoch was suicide in the conventional wisdom. Now, perhaps temporarily, not tackling him is the risky option. Ed is right to try and push these issues hard, and quickly. Similarly, those righties who basically accused The Guardian, Tom Watson etc of pursuing a non-story for political reasons have been disproven in the starkest terms. Don't let them forget it.

4. I can't gloat about the demise of NoTW. I'm not one of these people who have overnight discovered what a great paper it was, and mutter about press freedom. I wonder if such people were regular readers, as it was a fecking comic in large part. But sacrificing hundreds of jobs to save a takeover bid is not something I'm going to celebrate.

In terms of wider impact what I would say, based on what I have seen in the policy world in the wake of the banking crisis, is that when something like this hits you need to push as far as possible as quick as possible. The forces of reaction will push back, and successfully, therefore it's important to try and get as far as possible whilst they are in a weak position. I don't think Labour went as far as it could have when the banks were on their knees, and the banking lobby is now strong again. Obviously we're in opposition now, but can't make the same mistake again.

More generally I agree there are important similarities with MPs' expenses here. What was taken for granted - in this case turning a blind eye to hacking and seeking Murdoch's support - rapidly became utterly unjustifiable. Maybe this week end someone will write a good piece explaining exactly how it happened/what triggered it, because I am still not clear. But it's interesting to reflect that the bulk of the professional commentariat (be it politicos or media) got this one badly wrong and were overtaken by events. That makes me very hopeful for the future.

So here's where I go next... I think that there are big questions about the way that executives of public companies are paid. Their rewards frequently have little link to performance, and have risen rapidly at a time when the rest of the population is facing real cuts. They continue to award themselves all kinds of unjustifiable extras - differential pension provision being my personal hate - that go almost unchallenged. Lots of people know this - the execs themselves, institutional shareholders, rem consultants, business journos - but everyone simply repeats the line that change or challenge would be dangerous. It's an evil that we must tolerate in return for 'wealth creation'. This is the conventional wisdom that has solidified over recent years, with many shareholders playing a supporting role, and voting for pretty much all but the worst remuneration policies.

At the moment the clear consensus in the business/city/financial commentariat is that a) sky high exec pay is a problem at the margin b) you can't do much about it anyway and c) well, everyone else is doing it, so is it really that bad? Currently it looks solid. But so did the conventional wisdom about the media, and Murdoch in particular, last week. Do we have a potential trigger to cause the professional consensus around exec pay to unwind? I think it's worth a ponder.

Of course, future events will change the course of things. Maybe this won't turn out to be a turning point in terms of Murdoch's influence. Maybe, like the banks, he'll rapidly regroup his forces. Maybe there won't ever be a tipping point over executive pay, and the cynics are right that too many people have an interest in doing little or nothing to restrain it. But at least this week, for a moment, there is hope that we can arrange things differently and tackle the things that the professional commentators of the status quo say cannot be changed. I personally find that hugely encouraging.

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