Two stories caught my eye this week. A Conservative and a Labour MP both attacked Google for having an insufficiently large poppy on the website for Armistice Day. And Ed Miliband criticised short-term loans company Wonga for “targeting children” in their advertising and got a “we’re already on top of this”-type response from the Government.
On the rights and wrongs of the attacks, I think the attack on Google was pretty spurious and this particular attack on Wonga was, if not spurious, possibly a little speculative. But leave all that aside, what does this say about attitudes to business?
Normally, when someone criticises a business, it’s part of a bigger debate. So, if a leftwinger pops up to attack bankers’ bonuses, a rightwinger will then be put up to point to the contribution, not least in taxes, that the City makes to the economy. A local campaigner denounces the company that’s building a windfarm on his or her patch? Very soon a green will push back, if not specifically in defence of the company, certainly in defence of the business model.
That doesn’t happen with Google and Wonga. Crudely, Google is criticised for not censoring more by the traditional right and for not paying more tax by the traditional left. Equally crudely, Wonga is attacked for profiting from poverty by the liberals, and for committing the old sin of usury by the traditionalists.
All or none of these criticisms may be valid and I’ve deliberately stated them in oversimplified terms. But almost everyone has a reason to think that these firms should be criticised. Because people think these firms should be criticised for reasons we believe in, we don’t worry too much if they are criticised for reasons we don’t believe in.
When there’s no debate, really shoddy arguments get through. The “size of poppy = respect for war dead” equation is pretty easy to refute. But the Telegraph and two Members of Parliament from different parties weren’t held back by that: if no one is going to argue back then why worry?*
Most people will say, sod it, both firms are big and ugly enough to look after themselves. I’m a bit worried by the idea of anyone having a carte blanche to politically attack others even if those being attacked are a bit grim (see this from Adam Lent), but maybe I’m missing the bigger picture.
Either way, we’re sending out a strange message. We’re not saying that companies need to avoid doing things that lead to heavy criticism. We’re saying that they can be as bad as they want – so long as they keep either the left or the right onside. Only once they alienate both sides, is it open season.
*With a few exceptions, led by the cursed-to-be-rational @PrimlyStable – go follow her.