Thursday, February 5, 2004

A leap of faith

Guest post by John

I see clear connections between these issues. At the heart of the connection is ownership of knowledge (or ‘supposed to know-ness’ as I’m coming to think of it now) and the twenty-twenty hindsight that goes with it. Whatever I call it, it has little to do with trust. It ultimately requires a leap of faith into publicness. Consider:

The west learns that Pakistan has been peddling WMD technology and know-how to the ‘axis of evil’ for the past decade or so. We only learn this when the guy doing it publicly confesses. Instead of asking what our ‘intelligence’ services have been doing while all this has been going on we’re fed the hindsight view of what it means and how and why it happened.

An aeroplane crashes into the Red Sea killing scores of returning holidaymakers and shattering countless lives forever. It later comes to light that the carrier – Flash Airlines - is banned from certain European airspaces as a result of failed random safety checks in the recent past. This knowledge however remains with its owners until it enables twenty-twenty hindsight to kick in with its 'gotcha' payoff.

The dot-com bubble bursts and shortly afterwards Enron share price plummets from tens of pounds to single figure pence overnight. Millions of small investors are left penniless. It’s then revealed that Enron’s owners, their analysts, their brokers and their advisers have long since bailed at ceiling prices. The business press provides chapter and verse hindsight on the what, why, how and when of it. Nobody does anything apart from Eliot Spitzer NY state attorney general who tries to hold the SEC to account and gets Merril Lynch stung for damages in court. The SEC promise to tighten up their processes.

Closer to home, two zillionaire investors, fearing that Manchester United plc could have an Enron-like future, set out to protect their stake by getting their hindsight in first. For the small shareholder though, as with Enron, share price is all the information there is.

Crudely, trust in share price has two dimensions: a faith-in-brand commodity trust dimension offering the choice buy, sell or hold; and an authority trust dimension (and here comes the leap of faith) offering WYSIWYG assurance. Whether Man Utd or the Murdoch empire, this assurance is brought to you by the non-executive board members. So the question becomes can you make the leap of faith necessary to think these guys have your interests at heart (and the only Murdoch non-exec I can recall is Norman Sinjin Stevas).

The trust relationship between the executive and the intelligence services is similar to that between Murdoch as chairman and Lord Stevas as non-exec. As well as being entirely asymmetric in power-terms and dominated throughout by publicness and authority trust, I reckon a close look at POSIWID is what is really needed if a richer relationship is to be defined. Hence my contention that Richard and Aidan would do a better job than Lord Butler. But don’t get me started on the POSIWID of the ‘intelligence’ services: start by taking a look at its riverside palaces. Kublai Khan eat your heart out.

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