Public mistrust of business is nothing new

EDITOR'S BLOG: MT has seen its share of bad behaviour over the last fifty years, but there are mercifully few wrong uns in business today.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 30 Jun 2016

Happy New Year, everyone. And this, we hope, will be an annus mirabilis for MT because it’s our 50th birthday. One thing MT has watched closely over the last five decades has been the reputation of business with the public. (Our Most Admired companies index was 25 last year.)  Closely linked to reputation is the ‘trust’ thing. I’ve made a programme for Radio 4 which airs tonight and is repeated on Sunday evening .(If you cannot wait or are busy watching Celebrity Big Brother you can listen to it here

I started off with Rupert Stadler, the Chairman of Audi (which is part of VW) who had a few questions to answer on the subject of trust. He was surprisingly optimistic. Maybe he’s correct. Maybe the current scandal will blow over without too much enduring damage.

I also spoke to Charlie Mayfield who chairs the John Lewis Partnership, which is generally considered to be well established on the path of virtue. He repeated the point I’ve heard him make before that establishing trust is easier if you don’t strive always to maximise profit but try to make ‘sufficient profit.’ Imaging trying to explain that concept to someone at Goldmans. Sir John Egan, who was in the middle of the ghastly trust mess at Severn Trent a few years back, also spoke with some wisdom on the subject.

The annual Edelman Trust Barometer will be announced at Davos the week after next. The current position of the mercury is not likely to have risen. Who, for example, is for trusting the Chinese government when their ‘markets’ are so unruly that they repeatedly have to keep closing the stock exchange to prevent it falling to its true level. Chinese markets are a crap shoot. The FT quotes one wag this morning:  ‘Your luck is too bad, let’s just end the game for today.’ So, in China few people trust their government and its casino capitalism. For trust you need transparency and China is the most opaque of places.

It’s become commonplace to say that business is more mistrusted today than ever before. I’m not sure this is true. Was there ever a golden age of trust? I’ve just read all Robert Harris’s thrillers about ancient Rome. Crassus and the rest who fill their boots do it by the most cynical and appalling of means. This wasn’t business - it was organised plunder. Sir Francis Drake was a licensed pirate who made Bernie Madoff look virtuous. The East India Company, anyone? The Victorian era, when robber barons ruled the land and children were put up chimneys and down mines, and Charles Dickens laboured in a boot blacking factory aged 12? The 1920s and 30s were decades of bitter strikes, worker lock-outs and compulsory wage cuts. In recent decades we had Robert Maxwell, Polly Peck, Enron.  

What reassures me is that most people I come across in business are not bent and untrustworthy. Either at the top, in the middle or those who toil in the ranks. How many real wrong uns do you know? Marc Bolland, to coin an immediate example, is not untrustworthy. He struggled manfully with a tough gig and failed. He put a brave face on it for his tenure and he did his best. You’d be surprised how decent most people are. Bad behaviour, when it does occur, is far harder to hide or disguise than it was in the past. The whole new digital world has seen to that.

But there are serious problems. When we did a vox pop on Oxford Street  one woman I approached said 'I think business are a necessary evil in Western society.' This is simply bonkers. What does she want?  A cultural revolution? John McDonnell and his Little Red Book?  

Business can be thankful of one thing, however. In the trust league tables it is rarely holding up the bottom slot. This position is normally reserved, naturally, for politicians and those in the media. While only a third of people trust business leaders to tell them the truth for politicians that figure is just a sixth. But that is another deficit story. Trust me, I’m a journalist.


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