On ‘revolving doors’

Back in 2007 we interviewed Fintan O’Toole about his career in journalism and asked him for his views on how the media operates. On the subject of the ‘revolving door’ between journalism, government and big business he had this to say:

“It is a particular question in relation to the media because at least to some extent we are beginning to develop the kind of lobbying circle you have in the United States, where you have people moving between political parties, media organisations and big business. They are getting more and more sophisticated, sharing more information etc. This isn’t some sort of conspiracy; you will have people going from one week as a senior journalist to the next week representing a major company back to other journalists. There are built in advantages in the way that operates. It’s parallel to the reason why big business hires tax inspectors.”

To which we replied:

“That tends to lift control away from the general public.”

O’Toole responded:

“It does what society does in general, which pretends that this is an open game, yet it hobbles certain people in advance, and strengthens others.”

Following a later interview with Frank Connelly, O’Toole clarified his position:

“Some readers seem to have assumed that the advantages I referred to here are for journalism. Actually, I meant the opposite – that the advantages are for the corporations. I was drawing a parallel with the hiring of tax inspectors as tax advisors for corporations – they know how the system operates and their knowledge gives the company an advantage over the tax authorities. Likewise, the hiring of ex-journalists as media advisors gives companies an edge in getting their spin on a story. Far from thinking this a good thing, I was intending to criticise it.” [Email, 20/11/07]

In O’Toole’s (excellent) recent book Ship of Fools he writes:

“In spite of four major scandals involving criminal behaviour (DIRT, Ansbacher and Cologne Re), there was no sense that the political and regulatory systems ought to regard the financial industry with a sharp eye and at a cool distance. Socially, culturally and ideologically, there was a shared set of assumptions and values that made it easy to move from one side to the other. The borders between politicians and bankers , regulators and regulated became ever more porous.” [Fintan
O’Toole, Ship of Fools, Page 145 – 147]

He then goes on to list examples of regulators turned bank board members, ministers turned bank chairmen and regulatory advisors turned bank directors, before coming to the point:

“There is no suggestion that any of these men behaved in any way unethically or that they were ever less diligent in performing their duties. The point, simply, is that no one moving between the worlds of supervision and active banking was likely to suffer from culture shock.” [Ibid]

This simple observation is interesting in several respects, one of which is that as a journalist, O’Toole, while evidently realising its existence, fails to identify this same porous border in the case of his industry, the media, the one’s hysterically running around the deck reassuring everyone that would listen that the sinking ship was buoyant.

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