Thursday, 10 August 2017

Commonwealth Bank and holding power to account

Talking to one of my far more experienced colleagues, his advice about Australia’s Commonwealth Bank money laundering scandal is to wait for the investigation (which is in process) both internally and potentially by the regulators before asking for scalps from the C-suite. It’s hard to believe their excuse of coding errors. Someone must have noticed. But the relative lack of media coverage in Australia is intriguing for other reasons.

Over in New Zealand, people I talk to are discussing the imminence of a recession. Why? Because Australian banks are running out of money. So for something like this to happen at one of the larger banks, and for the reaction to be relatively muted, bolsters my initial suspicion that journos are trying to maintain fiscal stability first, and encourage prosecution second.

But as a wise man once said, "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." Keep in mind the average age of journalists in NZ and AUS can’t be much higher than 26-27. Simply put, most journos may be avoiding this topic because they have no idea what’s going on. This is why when Trump and his wife travel overseas, a group of stories emerge about his dinner menu or her “beautiful clothing.” A25-year-old has no idea how to parse the complex geopolitical problems, so they collapse back to what they do know, which is nothing.

One thing that does bother me is how journalists pat themselves on the back about “speaking truth to power” but don’t realise that in the modern world, it’s not politicians who have power, it’s the civil service tied with the corporate world. I don’t mean a “who has the money” kind of power, but the ability-to-change-the-world kind of power. Journos are, of course, susceptible to influence from corporates due to advertising support. But the real problem is journos actually don’t comprehend that formal power has shifted.

I think if you claim to be “speaking truth to power” then the default assumption is that power manifests in a specific way, which makes anyone who says that phrase an instrument of that power. Because executives aren’t held to the same scrutiny as politicians, even though they have more power, implies journalists do not apprehend where the new power is. Hence, traditional or legacy media is failing as an institution because it is no longer a useful tool. So what has taken media’s place? Social networks (notice how these magically became social “media” within the last five years).

Social networks are emergent properties of online corporates, in the same way broadcast media was an emergent property of democratic government. As with any power shift, the old controllers of the institutions and their instruments are sidelined, but the concept of the institution remains. The dynamic is a flowing of power, which you can always tell has occurred when the names of an institution have changed.

Why am I bringing this up? Because the most interesting question to ask is whether social networks would have brought this Commonwealth Bank fiasco to your attention if traditional media hadn’t.

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