Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Rolf Harris, Rupert Murdoch face regulation plus culture shift

Critical analysis is important because it explains how established social and economic practices can be overthrown.

In my experience at least, academics and intellectuals do not spend enough time thinking about how to change the rules in order to shift the boundaries that separate legally tolerated behaviour  from unlawful thuggery. If they do engage in research on this topic, we tend to see precious little progress on moving against illegality. There may be some changes afoot in identifying and acting against previously tolerated activities.

The last couple of years have seen subtle changes playing out in relation to two Australians living abroad that could throw some light on the way shifts in the application of law within legal structures are changing and thus change the game.

The two people in question are Rolf Harris and Rupert Murdoch. As pillars of establishment media they have been thrown into the spotlight. In Harris's case he was found to be engaged in criminal sexual activity against children. In Murdoch's case, Andy Coulson, former editor of the no longer operating tabloid newspaper News of the World was  engaged in criminal phone hacking. He was employed by Mr Murdoch's company, as were a number of others who have admitted to similar wrong doing or are still awaiting trial.

There are a couple of lines of inquiry to tease out here.

  • One has to do with the fact that both of the people in question are Australian expatriates.
  • Another has to do with their behaviour. 
  • A third has to do with the confluence of actions by the UK government and its regulators to suddenly bring them to public scrutiny and charge them or people in their organizations with crimes. 
  • The fourth line of inquiry has to do with what Australian men (in this case) believe is acceptable behaviour.
  • A fifth line of inquiry is whether these cases signal a much needed shift in tolerance for illegal behaviour generally.

First the Australians (I am also one). Consider the following questions:
Are Australians in the media inclined to practice criminal behaviour?
Are Australians likely to dismiss regulation in favour self-interest?

It is possible to draw the conclusion that the Harris and Murdoch guilty verdicts are merely a matter of timing.

Another conclusion could be that Australians achieve recognition and global success by refusing to accept limits on behaviour placed by regulations in their new "home" countries. By breaking the rules, or just going about their business to gain international success, Australians break or break through, drawing on their Crocodile Dundee libertarian cultural default along the way.

Recall the 1986 film of the same name and the favored scene of "That's not a knife. That's a knife!" Croc This scene is instructive for the way the knife wielding Dundee wins the girl for his bravado, his macho charisma and his rough charm. These ear characteristics for which the unregulated individual is well regarded, and like Harris and Murdoch, these free spirits are two Australian risk takers, who win over the Americans and the English with their unpolished behaviour, their brazen charm and their accents.

Or consider the US advertisement for Outback Steakhouse: "No Rules. Just Right."

A more interesting philosophical question is this: is there wilful ignorance at work?

(I would not eat at a restaurant that was not regulated, if that meant the food was poorly prepared. The connotation for me in this restaurant's pitch is that regulation of the entire operation, including hygiene, is something they reject. It's the end of the libertarian line. GO AND WASH YOUR HANDS!)

Some critics will add that this ignorance is further mobilized as Australia is swamped with celebrity worship, uncritical consumerism and obsessive interest in all things American that appears to be solely about the economic good life and anti-regulation.

Australian media organizations feed this beast. They share with many others around the world the need for lists to fill up that otherwise white space on the magazine page. The list of Trusted People included Rolf Harris on the Readers Digest list of 100 Most Trusted People, which means name recognition for celebrity. Trusted People - Australia

Is the culture changing? Have rugged individuals like Harris and Murdoch or their organizations been brought to justice outside Australia? If so what does this say about public and private attitudes to particular types of previously tolerated behavior? Or behaviour that has been made public.

Under the headline "Rolf Harris's pantomime act should never have fooled us," Suzanne Moore
 writing in The Guardian suggested that there was one individual who mobilized action against Harris, the UK director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer.  Moore comments

"It was against a backdrop of a different Crown Prosecution Service, not some nebulous atmospheric change in the ..." writes Moore. The second part of that sentence is not in line with this blog post, while the first part suggests that there are too many officials working in regulatory organizations who do too little to defend the public interest by bringing charges.

Sometimes good things happen:

This week, after 10 years of pretending their was nothing wrong with their cars, General Motors in the US accepted Ken Feinberg's arrangements for multi-billion dollar settlements to families whose members were killed as a result of GM's behavior. Payment result from Feinberg

Similarly, BNP Paribas bank has agreed to pay an $8.9 billion fine to the US Department of Justice.  PNB Paribas No criminal charges were brought in this or other cases against banks making transactions for banned governments, such as Iran.

Harris and Murdoch are receiving penalties. Banks and auto manufacturers are being caught and brought to justice in not nearly enough numbers, but in numbers that suggest regulators are making some small headway.

Not an atmospheric change? Let's hope Suzanne Moore is wrong. Criticism please!