Who Watches the Watchmen? Ethics, Government, Private Enterprise, and Radical Experiments in Accountability
About a month back, I stumbled upon a group out of the UK called The Ethical Company Organization. I was searching
for information on ethical electronics companies after reading Wikipedia’s rather extensive list of Apple’s ethical dilemmas. You don’t have to trust Wikipedia about it though, or even The Tyee. The New York Times has also done some interesting work on the subject. Even my beloved Google, who made the phrase “Don’t Be Evil” part of their prospectus, have a rap sheet.
Enough links. Point is, I’ve been around on the internet. You can find sites promoting anything as if it’s firm scientific fact. Ethical Oil comes to mind, or the Church of Scientology, or the website of a certain Quebecor-owned news station. Grab some spin, spice it with a few plausible ideas or common-sense-like phrases, and you can pretty much find someone online who is willing to pay the low low price of $99.99 to get in on it.
With this in mind, I emailed the Ethical Company Organization asking about their practices, their process for accrediting companies, and any independent analysis they may have on their own company that verifies they do anything other than give endorsements for cash. Sadly, one month later, I still have received no response. I don’t mean this as a slight against the organization. For all I know, they’re like so many other underfunded NGOs that only have a few staff answering emails once or twice a week. They could be the pinnacle of integrity; as of yet, I couldn’t tell you.
It got me thinking of a certain Quebecor-owned news station that has appointed itself as de facto watchman. As anyone paying attention to the Canadian political landscape knows, Sun TV has been fighting to undermine the CBC for some time now. For any southerners, imagine Fox News assaulting a government-run organization that’s something like a hybrid of PBS and NPR. Sun has been peppering the CBC with access to information requests, somewhat successfully, for the better part of its existence. Their biggest helper, in a fit of irony, has been the federal government. I, perhaps alone, have been tiny voice in the left-hand corner of the room who thought this was a huge opportunity for the CBC. Why? Because democratic governments are accountable to their people, and so too should be the corporations run by those governments. And so too should be any other company that wants to play in that sandbox.
We have crown corporations for a reason. They provide essential services like electricity, news, and mail delivery that our society doesn’t function well without, and, at least in theory, they are accountable to the people. We make them crown corporations because they provide essential services. We want them to be as transparent and open with us as possible. That shouldn’t be the end of the conversation, though, that should be the beginning. If Quebecor (or Shaw Media, or Bell Media, or Rabble.ca) want to provide news, which we’ve decided is essential to our society, then they too should be made to be accountable to the people of Canada.
The elephant in the room, and the source of this controversy, is that they’re not. Private corporations are only accountable to their shareholders, but I’ll never argue that public resources like the CBC should be more secretive. No. If the others want to play in our public sandbox, let them, but let’s make everyone play by the same rules.
I may not agree with Elizabeth May on much of anything, but I applaud her for putting all her expenses online. I’d encourage our media empires to do the same. Corporations, whether public or private, are a manifestation of a social contract. If a corporation wants to provide an essential service, then just like an MP, we should have direct say in the rules of that contract. The funding mechanisms and practices of Canadian media are important, and private enterprise should not have a free pass. We should all have access to that information.