Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Wilful blindness" and News International - old and new on the internet

Is is possible to get a handle on the goings-on around News International? Surely anyone who watched the interviews of Rupert and James Murdoch, Rebecca (look at my big, red hair!) Brooks to the UK House of Commons, Culture, Media and Sports Committee on Tuesday 19 July, 2011 would be hard pressed to reach any conclusion but one - this is a massive organization run by hundreds of ambitious managerial neophytes who do whatever they can to impact the bottom line.

No one in civil society, with its laws that demand certain decency standards, expects to see and hear executives say they do not know what the neophytes do! But there it was. Perhaps on this basis alone, News International as a company, is too big.

The best question of the day was the one about "wilful blindness."

Q 269 Mr Sanders: "Finally, are you familiar with the term "wilful blindness?"
James Murdoch: "Mr. Sanders, would you care to elaborate?
Q270 Mr Sanders: "It is a term that came up in the Enron scandal. Wilful blindness is a legal term. It states that if there is knowledge that you could have had and should have had, but chose not to have, you are still responsible."

It could be the touchstone for any discussion of corporate analysis in the context of digital communications. The point is not to discuss the details of the Murdochs and Rebecca Brooks et. al., but to understand how "wilful blindness" translates into the communications and media fields.

(Can someone please count the number of times Rupert and James admitted that they did not know, or had no knowledge of, or were unaware of? If this is not willful blindness, then is it incompetence? These are important questions for media, to which civil society entrusts the informing, entertaining and education of citizens. Then again, the very idea of civil society itself must be in debate because the internet suggests new theories of civil society, namely that of a global state of flux.)

The task is to recognize how the internet may enhance "wilful blindness," making it possible for new types of behavior to come into play. These types of behavior, as my theory of proletarianization suggests, are the unregulated ones: the values and ideologies that civil society has previously managed. By managed I mean suppressed. (Note that Rupert Murdoch himself mentioned human nature in the hearing.)

Like all astute people, Rupert's mention of human nature is utilized as a countervailing strategy to avoid responsibility for doing things that are unacceptable in civil society. If people are fundamentally interested in human nature, then the media must engage in the presentation of weakness, of evil and of good, which are its characteristics. According to this world view, people are viewed as fundamentally good or evil and it is here where the business opportunity arises. The argument goes that business is merely meeting and channeling human nature. The role of business, of the media, is to recognize that and allow it to flourish. This is liberty, the characteristic of emancipation.

At the time it was used at News of the World and elsewhere in News International, phone hacking was a means of exposing human nature.

If you have read this far, you will know that you do not need to be Einstein to realize where this line of thinking leads. It leads to excess, to admitting and allowing human nature to flourish, regardless of the consequences.

In the unregulated internet domain, you allow human nature to flourish and you do so by not applying old ideas like "wilful blindness" because that's irrelevant in the new era. It's a wonderful circuit of syntactical logic, cultural politics and the displacement of Enlightenment ideas.    

Any review of the phone hacking scandal could utilize "wilful blindness" as an analytical tool with which to evaluate the phone hacking activities. It would be a way of elaborating on the political economy of the media.