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News of The World – A moral crisis in the making? July 11, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture, Leadership and management, Management, Philosophy.
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The printed media industry, like the music industry, has been under pressure in recent years.  Convenient and timely electronic access to a wide variety of content has all but rendered traditional methods of delivery irrelevant.  When you can get breaking news as it happens, as long as you are on line, why would deadlines for inclusion in printed newspapers matter?

Reeling under conditions of hyper-competition to survive, let alone thrive, many big-name magazines and newspapers have had to find ways to differentiate themselves.  These include news “scoops” which are possible only through clandestine tactics involving invasion of privacy and rampant disregard for human decency.  Hacking into voicemail accounts of murder victims and celebrities is par for the course if it provides an edge on stories that pique the interest of readers.

On the surface, moral outrage against such practices has brought down UK’s Sunday tabloid News of The World (NOTW).  The abrupt decision by Rupert Murdoch’s media empire News Corporation to close the newspaper raises a number of questions in its wake.

The decision announced by News International’s Chairman James Murdoch that the edition of NOTW on July 10th, 2011 is its last appears at first sight to be admission of, if not atonement for, culpability in the phone hacking accusations.  In his statement on the closure, Murdoch says: “The good things the News of the World does, however, have been sullied by behaviour that was wrong. Indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our Company.”

Murdoch sugar-coats the decision by claiming to take the moral high ground, but even  commentators who are not die-hard cynics have reason to believe that other motives are behind it.  Terminating a 168-year-old institution is a momentous decision that cannot be taken lightly, especially when many jobs are involved, and even in the context of the allegations of outrageous practices by its staff, surely can be but the last resort.

First, there are commercial considerations.  Like many other brands in recent times publicly dragged through the dirt of scandalous behaviour, for example, Tiger Woods, NOTW is likely to face mass desertion by commercial benefactors
such as advertisers, at least in the short term, damaging its commercial viability.  Yet as the dominant Sunday tabloid with a circulation of 2.6 million readers, NOTW is probably profitable, and can withstand a little pressure before sinking into red ink.  Besides, shrewd businessmen such as the Murdochs don’t just give up a profitable venture that easily.

Many point to Murdoch’s intention to launch a title that mirrors the highly successful The Sun, which doesn’t publish on Sunday.  On July 5th, two days before the NOTW closure was announced, two URLs, TheSunOnSunday.com and TheSunOnSunday.co.uk, were registered.  Could closure of NOTW be a convenient way to re-brand it as The Sun?

Second, closing NOTW is a masterstroke of guilt denial.  By cutting off what might be a rotten branch, James Murdoch is clearly trying to distance himself and the rest of News International from the culprits as the tree that remains unspoiled.  Yet Rebekah Brooks, the editor in charge when NOTW committed the alleged offences, remains a trusted executive of News Corporation.  Rupert Murdoch is said to have expressed “total support” for her as CEO of News International.  Could she be the one bad apple?

Third, even if the Murdochs are genuinely ignorant about about the outrageous practices in NOTW, as leaders of the organisation, they must take responsibility for the root cause of such behaviour – sacrificing moral standards in a relentless drive for commercial results.  Even if they don’t overtly condone the behaviour of a handful of NOTW staff, they cannot deny endemic failure to maintain moral standards in the organisation.

Debates about the closure of NOTW will continue for months.  Some will concern the commercial brutality facing newspapers in general; others will focus on the symbiotic relationship between politicians and the media.  In my mind, the most important questions we need to answer are:

Are we facing a moral crisis in general, and if so do we even know?

The media survive only if they provide what readers want.  NOTW obviously did this well.  Many readers interviewed by stv claim that despite the phone hacking practices, they continue to buy NOTW.  Are we so inured to injustices in the world that all we look for is the next cheap thrill, and in response are the media right in serving us everything that we want?  If not, are they going to survive?  What wider responsibilities do the media have in defending moral standards and human decency, in the same way as they shape public opinion?

What is the responsibility, if any, of commercial executives to balance the drive for results and maintenance of moral standards?

Commercial enterprises exist to generate profit for shareholders and economic benefits for the wider population.  Many regulations prevent behaviour detrimental to some segments of society, for example unfair competition, price
fixing and misleading product descriptions.  Yet many commercial practices are legal but morally questionable.  How do leaders in these organisations choose between the ignominy of missing commercial targets and defending moral
standards?

What lessons are we going to teach the next generation about NOTW debacle?

The financial crisis of 2008 has taught the world nothing about the fiduciary duty of bankers to protect customers’ life savings.  In fact, banking leaders have shown no remorse for taking, and then passing on, incalculable risks.  Worse still, they feel entitled to millions in bonus payments in return.  As economies in developed countries suffer severe budget cuts resulting from decades of profligacy, it is inevitable that comercialisation of education will intensify.  We have
already shown an avid appetite for vocationally friendly courses at universities (cf. my comments on Middlesex University’s abolition of philosophy courses).  Are we likely to reflect on the NOWT case and pause to think about the need for moral education as a fundamental requirement?

Until we have fully considered and answered the above questions, those who have lost their jobs in NOTW will have done so in vain.  They deserve our sympathy.

Philosophy education goes down the drain at Middlesex University May 24, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture, Philosophy.
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In the money-frenzied and celebrity-gossip-hungry world of modern media, it is not surprising that the decision by Middlesex University in the UK to close its philosophy department did not make the headlines.

It would have passed unnoticed had it not provoked a three-week sit-in by a small group of students terminated by a court injunction.  It has also stimulated opposition among international academics, although admittedly mainly in the area of philosophy, but it has not yet reached a level of general debate.  The politicians and policy-makers have not seized upon it as the issue of the day because the electorate does not yet feel it’s important enough in the midst of the economic turmoil.

As The Times reported it, the closure of the philosophy department is on account of student numbers being “unsustainably low”.  Apparently, the department has failed to “develop any strengths in continuing professional development or consultancy”.  In other words, The Times concludes, “it costs too much and doesn’t do anything practical”.

At a very basic level, Middlesex University’s decision highlights a flaw in the approach to the allocation of resources to tertiary education funding based on how much courses cost to run.  It is also symptomatic of the heavily utilitarian and vocational bent of tertiary education in recent years.  Above all, it exposes a trenchant lack of respect for culture and humanities at universities in the 21st century.

Perhaps I shouldn’t generalize.  Middlesex University was, apparently, born a polytechnic.  It should be forgiven for taking an above average utilitarian approach.  Tariq Ali says that “a university that closes down subjects like philosophy should lose its status as a university and be returned to a polytechnic”.  The UK also has a fine tradition of excellence in the humanities, a la Oxford and Cambridge.

Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine that in an environment of fierce competition for dwindling job opportunities, students tend to neglect subjects which are not seen to be directly related to a ready career post graduation.  The more fundamental question is: is it true that graduates in humanities are less professionally competent?  They certainly can be more professionally disadvantaged, but only if we decide that they should be so.  We must change our way of thinking.

Let’s confine the discussion here to the study of philosophy rather than the humanities in general.  Having been, nay still being, a student of philosophy, I have direct experience.  To my mind, the study of philosophy has a number of characteristics:

–          it sharpens critical thinking

The study of philosophy emphasises discourse and the examination of premises.  As in the study of law, philosophy teaches the construction and defence of arguments; but unlike law, it uses values and humanity rather than practical considerations as rules of engagement.  Above all, students of philosophy are taught to take nothing for granted and to challenge assumptions.

–          it breeds curiosity and freedom

Philosophy is man’s quest for truth.  Its importance lies not in the observation of phenomena, as in science, but in pursuing the underlying reasons.  The need for curiosity to challenge the status quo, to stress test reasonable assumptions and to persist stubbornly in charting new territories leads to real freedom, of the intellectual kind.

–          it reinforces values

Philosophical discourse enables man to delineate good from bad, right from wrong, and reasonable from unreasonable.  It develops a framework of values for human interaction as well as social order.

–          it demands clarity and consistency

Human discourse relies on language, which is often a blunt tool for the purpose.  The study of philosophy helps promote precision in the use of language, and reduce inconsistency or muddiness.  If we accept certain assumptions to be correct – or if we define them to be so – philosophical investigations will compel us to accept certain other related assumptions to be correct as well.

–          it enhances humility and tolerance

One of the first things we discover in studying philosophy is that the more we know, the more we know we don’t know.  Getting an answer to one question often opens up many other questions, to which there may or may not be answers.  Further, it makes us appreciate the vastness of human intelligence, and the validity of opposing points of view.  Although philosophers are no less opinionated than others, they tend to be more respectful and accepting of dissent.

All of the above characteristics of studying philosophy point to its value in building character, in shaping a tolerant society, and in enabling better decision making.  We should persuade more people to engage in philosophical discourse, and not to dismiss it as an activity irrelevant to the practicalities of life.  In doing so, we may equip them better to reject pursuit of unbridled materialism as progress and achievement, temper extremist views that defy reason – and the use of violence to defend them – and develop innovative solutions to cope with rapid changes in technology that wreak havoc with the comfort of relative certainty.

The notion that studying philosophy is of no practical value in life is pure hogwash.  For the benefit of future generations, whether they decide to specialise in science, commerce or the arts, we have the responsibility to encourage the study of philosophy as a means to ensure more ethical, tolerant and reasonable behaviour.  In fact, it should be a required foundation course.