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Rein Them In!

Entry 1920, on 2018-06-28 at 20:58:53 (Rating 3, Politics)

Many years ago, I participated in an email conversation with a random person in the US (because that's the way we "chatted" back then). I have no idea how this started, but messages went back and forwards for a few weeks on various topics and we got on quite well. After a while we discussed our jobs. I was working as a programmer and it turned out she was a student doing some sort of management or marketing degree. Of course, this was an inauspicious moment in the relationship because that is not the sort of person I usually approve of.

So I asked her what she thought she might do when she graduated. She said "I will probably do PR for a large corporation". So I replied with "So, you will be a professional liar, then?". Which was not meant to be super-critical, but in hindsight I can see how it might be seen that way!

And that was about where our email exchange ended. Who knows what damage this woman might now be doing to the state of truth in the world. She probably works for Microsoft now, or as a PR advisor to Donald Trump.

More recently, I got involved with a minor debate on Facebook regarding the advice of a political commentator to our prime minister regarding how she should handle a rather outspoken member of the government.

The commentator, Kate Hawkesby, said the "PM must rein in rogue NZ First MPs". She was specifically referring to Shane Jones, who is a member of the NZ First Party, a coalition partner with the PM's Labour Party. Jones had made some critical comments about the CEO of New Zealand's biggest company, Fonterra, which some people disapproved of.

Hawkesby has never appeared to have a great deal of credibility, and that probably wasn't helped after her marriage to Mike Hosking, who is arguably New Zealand's least credible major political commentator. But even if I don't hold the person in very high regard, I should still listen to and evaluate her comments because, as I often say, I try to criticise ideas, not people.

So the question is: should politicians "toe the line" and follow their party's policies. And to extend this: are employees compelled to remain silent on problems within the organisation or company they work for, or should they communicate their true thoughts?

In other words, is the career choice of the email correspondent I discussed above useful? Do professional PR experts fulfill a valuable place in society? Should people be limited in what they can say about an organisation they are part of?

My answer - you might not be surprised to hear - is both yes and no. I think the proclamations of professional PR people are counterproductive, because many people don't take them seriously. They (quite correctly) identify them as corporate (or political) spin and ignore them. But the opinions of random people from within an organisation should also be treated with caution because they might not know much about the "big picture" or might be inaccurate in other ways.

In the end, this gets back to a philosophy I have decided to adopt in the last year or two: listen to what the person is saying rather than who is saying it. I know, this sounds just like common sense, and anything else could simply be seen as being unreasonable, but very few people even make an attempt at following this advice, and some people specifically reject it.

So I think any politician should be able to express their opinion, even if it is contrary to the official party line, but if they get it wrong there should be strong negative consequences. These might include public ridicule, and even formal actions (such as ejection from the party) for any repeated, obviously erroneous, comments.

And the same should apply to people in other organisations. Saying that all the truth lies with the PR department or senior management is just so obviously untrue and dangerous that it should not be encouraged. If a junior member of an organisation can show that the official line is untrue then that should be welcomed. A correction should be made and to me it seems that would be a welcome outcome.

It's hard to see how anyone could disagree. Think about it: if the people in power don't want their ideas to be criticised, all they have to do is get them right. If anyone does criticise them, and gets that criticism wrong, then there should be consequences, hopefully through a general lack of public credibility for that person.

Surely any organisation which doesn't welcome criticism is basically admitting that they are probably wrong. Anyone who is confident they are right has nothing to fear from anyone questioning their ideas.

And the thought that an organisation (such as a company, political party, or other institution) must be seen to be united to the outside world is also spurious. Any organisation based on sound and carefully considered principles will most likely have a good level of solidarity anyway. With conventional control structures many organisations might superficially appear to be united, but that is a false impression based on the forceful repression of dissenting views. Surely having real cohesion is better than agreement inflicted through fear of reprisals.

When I see politicians from the same party, or from different members of a coalition, disagreeing I see it as a positive. I see that discussion is encouraged, that original thinking is valued, and that old and tired ideas have some chance of being improved. Where everyone is "singing from the same hymnbook" I usually see weakness. It is not pure coincidence that the idiom I used above is based on religion. Religions usually have belief systems based on the unfounded beliefs of senior members or the authority of outdated and clearly false sources. Why use that model for other organisations where original ideas and lateral thinking should be seen as valuable?

I do need to state again, that there should be negative consequences for making untrue or needlessly harmful comments. Anyone doing that, where it can be shown that they are wrong, should expect their reputation to be damaged. That will make sure that contrary opinions are carefully considered before they are made public.

Basically, it's all about balance. A "free for all" where everyone throws opinions around without much thought would be a disaster, but I believe the current system where ideas are controlled by the spin doctors (AKA professional liars) is at least as bad. People need a certain amount of reining in, but not too much.

So Kate Hawkesby making her view known is fine, but she should expect some negative comments about it. Unfortunately the Herald, where it was originally published, doesn't allow comments any more, so those criticisms have to be done on Facebook which is clearly not the best place for that to happen.

But we need more debate about these points, not less. And we need a lot less reining in!


Comment 1 (4921) by Anonymous on 2018-07-19 at 10:25:54:

You say "It's hard to see how anyone could disagree" but most people do. I think you need to understand how the real world works and forget about your idealistic fantasies!


Comment 2 (4925) by OJB on 2018-07-21 at 19:18:29:

Well, no doubt it's true that some people do disagree, and I guess I shouldn't be surprised by that. I was more trying to make a rhetorical point. Also, your statement "most people do" is no better supported by evidence than mine., unless you have some actual stats?


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