Nov 122012
 
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The most harrowing corporate-related video of the day doesn’t involve children dying in Africa as they are forceably weaned off mother’s milk through massive advertising campaigns.  No.  It’s much more prosaic and – yet – just as pointed.  Amazon’s Director of Public Policy – I think that was his post though I’m not sure he’s going to remain in it for much longer – provides us with this excruciating performance today as he was interrogated and even laughed at by MPs investigating the tax affairs of the big corporates.

Amazon wasn’t, however, the only one to suffer.  As politics.co.uk also reports:

[…] Starbucks global chief financial officer Troy Alstead was told his company’s claims to make a loss in the UK “just doesn’t ring true”.

The coffee chain pays no corporation tax in the UK and has filed losses with Companies House for most of the years it has been in the country.

“You have run the business for 15 years and are losing money and you are carrying on investing here. It just doesn’t ring true,” Hodge said.

“You are losing money. You have tried for 15 years and failed and you have promoted the guy who failed. It doesn’t ring true Mr Alstead, that’s what frustrates taxpayers in the UK.”

She added: “Are you lying to your shareholders?”

Meanwhile, if you are of a masochistic bent, more background to this story – again from the BBC – can be found here.  It’ll make you weep, if only out of evil joy.

It makes me feel ashamed, mind.

Ashamed of all the schools and hospitals which will close because these behemoths have got so good at avoiding their moral responsibilities.  Ashamed of all the good public servants – and private employees too – whose jobs have been lost because of the unfair advantage such companies have over their tax-paying competition.  Ashamed of the purchasing choices I now strive to make less and less: choices which have filled the pockets of delightfully clever “whats” – websites, delivery schedules, search engines and seductive flavours – but all at the expense of considerably unpleasant “hows”.

For this has real consequences – and they’re not only in the public sector.  Recently, the British electrical appliances and electronics chain Comet announced it was going into administration.  There are very particular issues I believe in relation to how the company was run, but Amazon’s own very forceful presence in the market was surely a contributory factor.  And overheads are bound to vary tremendously.  That bricks-and-mortar establishments provide a face-to-face after-sales service is, for example, a cost which many online retailers refuse to provide.

I recounted, in the meantime, the story of our iPod – purchased at a heavy discount from Amazon itself and now six months out of guarantee with a failing home button as built-in and permanent feature.  We felt that as retailer it was up to Amazon to take ownership of the issue – Amazon, however, argued it was Apple’s responsibility.  After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, I received this email from my erstwhile favourite corporation:

Dear Mr Williams,

My name is [ _____ _____ ] and I represent Executive Customer Relations within Amazon.co.uk and in this capacity, your correspondence has been brought to my attention.

I am sorry to hear of the difficulty experienced with the       New Apple iPod touch 8GB (4th Generation) received in May 2011 from your order #202-_______-_______.

The European Directive 1999/44/EC allows for a claim to be taken (under certain circumstances) for a period up to two years in accordance with European Law, and up to six years under UK law.

This does not imply that an item has a warranty of two years or six years respectively. It merely permits an individual to make a claim under certain circumstances within that time period, e.g. should a fault be proved to have been inherent in the first six months.

Amazon do not provide the warranty for this item. We do, however, cover our obligations under the relevant legislation such as the Sales of Goods Act 1979 in the UK. Under the Sale of Goods Act, a consumer is granted recourse against a seller of goods if those goods were defective at the time of purchase. This may include, in certain circumstances, repair, refund or replacement but only to the extent that doing so is not disproportionate to the value of the goods, having regard to the use the customer has already had of the goods and the nature of the goods.

You purchased your product approximately 18 months ago and, until recently, have used it successfully and reported no fault with the product. Given your satisfactory use of the product for a period of time which exceeded the manufacturer’s warranty period, it is not established that the product did not conform to the contract (i.e. was defective) at the time of purchase.

Amazon.co.uk is therefore not under an obligation to offer any additional assistance in repairing or replacing your product.

Please note that the manufacturer is often in a better position than the retailer to deal with technical problems affecting their products. Therefore, should you wish to pursue this matter, we would encourage you to contact the manufacturer to see if they are able to provide you with any further assistance. They may be in a position to offer a repair service or could provide you with information on relevant charges for an out of warranty repair:

–    Manufacturer: http://depot.info.apple.com/ipod/
–    Phone: 844_______
–    Email: http://www.apple.com/uk/support/

Thank you for your attention to this email.

Regards

[ _____ _____ ]
Executive Customer Relations

To cut a long story short, after a period of a year defined by the guarantee Amazon cares to comply with, Amazon as retailer understands it has no obligation to liaise with manufacturers at all.  Even as your Currys or Comet or Argos presumably continue to provide such a service.  At, of course, a slightly higher – but even so market-sensitive – purchase price.

If truth be told, it’s absolutely clear that a British search engine company doesn’t exist because of things like Google’s tax arrangements (#avoidance); a British coffee chain doesn’t exist because even Starbucks has demonstrated that on two quid a cup the business can’t operate profitably (#irony); and Comet, Argos, Currys and all the rest are busily defending evermore difficult trading circumstances as the Amazons of this world (well, let’s just say #Amazon) make all kinds of entirely legal decisions to avoid paying corporation tax to the communities from which they extract so many billions of pounds of profit.

What we really need is the free market to take these corporates by the scruff of the neck.  I’ve already suggested how here, here and here.  It’s now up to you to determine whether we go forward with these ideas.  I’m convinced they’d create a constructive level playing-field which would benefit everyone – but then I am a naive soul who still believes that people show general good faith when properly given the opportunity.

I do have to say one thing before I finish tonight: I suddenly feel so very awfully ashamed of ever having loved those American corporations.

Don’t you?

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Nov 122012
 
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The last couple of years of lurching institutional crisis here and abroad have often been couched in terms of moral decay.  From phone-hacking newspapers to MPs who rob the taxpayer blind, little which comes to the notice of the public sphere seems to demonstrate any kind of moral fibre at all.

Yet I wonder if what we are witnessing has less to do with morals – and far more to do with managerialist tendencies to unsustainably top those pyramidal organisational structures with foolishly overpaid CEOs utterly incapable of adequately performing their functions.  A couple of examples to follow:

  • Rupert Murdoch argued that the reality of the News of the World so totally escaped him because he was simply not duly informed of its activities over the years.  In effect, to know about such matters was someone else’s responsibility, and he trusted those individuals.
  • George Entwistle, DG of the BBC for a very short time, only recently admitted in an interview broadcast by the same organisation that he hadn’t been able to be on top of the repercussions of what became a journalistic catastrophe at “Newsnight”.  He’d been out.
  • Today, meanwhile, the most recent occupant of the latter role, Tim Davie, has just proceeded to march out of an interview with the Sky news channel.  It’s tough out there, being a madly positioned CEO.

http://youtu.be/6py-nM8Fp9U

So as you can see, this may not be a moral question after all.  Is it really reasonable to suggest that all the people involved in these organisations – at lowly and high levels, in the middle and sub-contractually – are as corrupt as a moral explanation for what is happening to our civilisations would suggest is the case?

I find it difficult to believe.  In my experience, people follow procedures reasonably faithfully – and where they don’t, managers are generally fearful enough to ensure it doesn’t go and happen again.  So if we can discard the explanation of lack of adequately moral fibre, what else can we use to inform our understanding of the societal collapse we are witnessing?

Is it that our medieval and pyramidal structures are truly flying past their use-by dates?  Is this a process not of moral decay but of simple organisational and structural decline?  We relied for so many centuries on that king atop a pile of courtly middle-managers, interfacing with occasionally revolting serfs and peasants, that even as we are dragged fighting and kicking into the 21st century, we are entirely unable to leave those olden ways of working behind.

And what is happening now isn’t so much paedophilia on a mass scale or evil corporate wrongdoings everywhere or a degree of political chicanery never seen before this moment in time but – rather – the creaking contradictions and result of this crisis of medieval managerialism.

A level of sustained managerialism, in fact, as applied to a series of 21st century needs quite different to those the managerialists would appear to be choosing – or, indeed, wanting – to address.

It’s not the morals, stupid – it’s the KPIs!!!

This isn’t a people’s revolution but a technocratic implosion.

And it’s not that the wrong people are in the job – it’s that the jobs we’ve created are impossible to do.  Even for the minority who, wishing to earn what they do, claim to properly possess the ability to carry out the tasks in question.

Our decline isn’t moral, after all – it’s entirely systemic.

But who’s going to want to notice it in time?

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Nov 122012
 
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I always suggest, when a figurative bomb blows up in our faces, that we should take a quick look in the opposite direction.  Who really benefits from such an explosion?  Surely that person whom we see walking away in the opposite direction.  The person or organisation, that is.  Maybe even a political party.

I wrote these words some weeks ago now on the subject of bbc.com, an element of the worldwide – but not accessible from Britain – commercial and online sales arm of our once beloved broadcaster:

Not that I think BBC Worldwide is really up to the job of competing on an open market with the ruthless Murdochs of this world.  But the damage that might be wreaked in the meantime is considerable.

For what really worries me about all the above is the impact which greedy and yet simultaneously ineffectual mindsets will, whilst they attempt to commercialise the BBC, have on the ethos of what used to be a public service broadcasting corporation of the highest order.  When the BBC mission talks of enriching people’s lives and valuing diversity here in the UK, how will that ever sit happily with looking to sell juicy and “premium” ad space to $1 million households in the USA?  What effect, in fact, will such advertising needs have on the nature of the content that our licence fee begins to generate?

We might even begin to wonder if the BBC’s silence on the NHS reforms didn’t have rather more to do with those foreign million-dollar decision-makers than – to date – any of us have imagined.

So will this become a case of the bbc.com tail wagging the bbc.co.uk dog – as well as a harbinger to come for a wider Britain?

Today, however, I discover that not only is BBC Worldwide selling our old Beeb as a premium brand to million-dollar US households but that it was also to be run by an ex-executive of PepsiCo, Tim Davie.  As a result of George Entwistle’s recent resignation as director-general of the BBC, Mr Davie will now be running the entire organisation on what we are told is an interim basis.

Just imagine it.

A man responsible for successfully marketing a cola drink to billions of people will now be in charge – at least whilst the firestorms rage – of managing a once, and possibly still highly, treasured public-service broadcaster.

The privatising instincts of the Tories couldn’t have got a better outcome if they’d all prayed simultaneously to a higher entity.  A sometime leader from one of the largest US corporations now in charge of shaping the BBC’s next stumbling steps.

I suppose it could be going something like this:

  1. Emasculate the BBC in order to privatise the NHS
  2. Feed the BBC false information on sexual abuse (in a most roundabout way) in order to create a Twitter firestorm
  3. Proceed to prosecute a number of notable Twitter users under the Malicious Communications Act
  4. Emasculate Twitter – and social media more generally – in order to continue a process of foreign-driven privatisation of public-sector delivery
  5. Ensure that the only media able to usefully inform are the relatively easily controlled and influenced mainstream-media behemoths

But, on the other hand, and even where in very good faith on my part, I may be totally wrong about all of the above.

I hope I am.

*

We all make mistakes.

And from our mistakes, they say, we learn.

I just hope the lesson they’re looking to teach us isn’t one that comes right out of awful dictatorial times of long ago: “Put up and shut up!” almost appears to be their motto.

That really would scythe our democratic instincts.

Oh.

Right.

So this is the establishment re-establishing itself, then.  And there was I – instead of fearing – actually believing in a brave new world of open and honest communication.

Silly me.

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