Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Safety Checks on Power

For two weeks the tsunami in Japan and the war in Libya have taken turns to dominate our TV screens and front pages. For a while Gaddafi's eastward advance against the rebels was displaced by reports about the threatened meltdown at the nuclear power station at Fukushima. Now enforcement of the UN's resolution to protect civilians under attack by Libyan government forces fills the news bulletins.

So only those of us listening to the 4 a.m. broadcast on the BBC World Service this morning caught the revelation that the company running the Fukushima plant, Tepco, has been failing to carry out proper safety checks for many years. As workers risk their lives in a continuing struggle to limit radiation emissions, Tepco has admitted cutting corners as part of the cost-saving regime driving its business model.

Interviewed about this story, Tim Phillips, author of Fit to Bust:How Great Companies Fail, explained the history of such collapses and scandals. Business leaders cultivate an image of success, based on dynamism and vision, to beguile investors and government officials. This view prevails in markets and the corridors of power; no-one wants to look behind the self-promotion of a profitable management team, or investigate the practices it conceals.

In cases like this, Phillips argues, a business culture can put such practices beyond inspection and public scrutiny, and make it virtually impossible for staff to question what they are being made to do. Eventually by-passing safety standards and neglecting checks becomes routine, and no-one has an interest in changing things.

Of course this is not unique to business settings. Nearly all abuse of power, in every type of organisation, is a taken-for-granted feature of the everyday. It comes as a shock to those who perpetrate abuses that they should be regarded as questionable, or that outsiders should try to hold them to account.

This is a common feature of the Fukushima story and the Libyan situation. Gaddafi is outraged that any citizens should claim the right to challenge him, or make him answerable for his actions. Over time he has come to believe himself to be the embodiment of the people's will, with a God-given right to define who are true Libyans, and who are traitors, scum and vermin.

Dictators discredit politics, which is why the Arab uprising, in pursuit of democratic freedoms, has been so refreshing. In our jaded political culture, where Parliament itself has been tarnished by the expenses scandal, and state services (including the NHS) tainted by examples of inhumanity, the prevailing wisdom is that markets and firms are efficient, and competition keeps organisations honest.

So the Tepco revelation is a timely reminder. It is public accountability that protects us from exploitation, exposes corruption and keeps us safe. Leaders of all kinds, business and political, are tempted to try to cover things up, and to shield themselves from scrutiny within a culture of routine abuse of power.

1 comment:

  1. This does remind me of one of the most popular quotes of the current age which featured on Thinking Allowed late last year.

    “Each uneventful day that passes reinforces a steadily growing false sense of confidence that everything is all right – that I, we, my group must be OK because the way we did things today