Inconvenient truths?

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

ISSN: 0951-3574

Article publication date: 20 September 2011

Citation

Evans, S. (2011), "Inconvenient truths?", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 24 No. 7. https://doi.org/10.1108/aaaj.2011.05924gaa.001

Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited


Inconvenient truths?

Article Type: Literature and insights From: Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Volume 24, Issue 7

We live in an era where expectations of privacy are apparently reducing, and rapidly. The surge in access to previously non-broadcast personal information has the potential to create significant problems. Teenagers are frequently warned, for instance, that what they post online may come back to haunt them, though many younger people say that they are unconcerned. The real cost with such transparency and easily available personal information can be to destroy your relationship, to affect your job, and sometimes even to lose your life.

Prospective employers can check out a job applicant’s Facebook page, and may discover activities and opinions reflected there that don’t match claims made in the applicant’s CV. Who is the real person represented in either record? Does the application constitute lying by omission? There are questions of rightful access but also of misrepresentation to be sorted out.

In the academic world, the ethics of data handling is often intimately related to questions of research methodology. As a former member of a university research ethics committee dealing with the humanities and the behavioural sciences, I saw how easily some scholars could overlook the potential for personal information to be disclosed without the subjects’ consent. Sometimes, the presence of that risk raised grave concern for the welfare of the subjects, including the chance of persecution for their political outlooks.

In a recent article, online magazine CNNMoney described five different breaches of privacy that had very scary results (Pepitone, 2010). Each eventually involved a lawsuit but, of course, the damage had already been done, including a fatal shooting in one case. People’s intimate details were broadcast or disclosed to others who arguably had no justifiable right to know about them.

The question of privacy is coming home to roost at higher levels, particularly in the world of political leaders. You’ve probably guessed it, but I must warn you now that I am about to type a word you may be thoroughly sick of. Brace yourselves, because here we go: WikiLeaks.

Yes, this is the umpteenth article to take WikiLeaks as its subject matter, but that’s appropriate in the context of the AAAJ and professional concerns about accountability. You would be well aware how the WikiLeaks spillage has placed many political leaders in a worse light. Their previously off-record comments about the character and policies of other leaders have revealed a lot of posturing and duplicity on their part.

You might argue, what would delicate political dealings be without an element of acting and poker playing tactics? Greater transparency could be utterly destructive, but it is also a matter of timing rather than completeness of disclosure alone. One may simply want to withhold information temporarily in order to take advantage during negotiations, with less concern about that knowledge being more widely available later. Permanent secrecy is another issue. Either way, though, looking backwards can throw a different light on understanding how our representatives negotiate, what we think of them, and what we expect of them.

The WikiLeaks site says:

One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth.

When information comes in, our journalists analyse the material, verify it and write a news piece about it describing its significance to society. We then publish both the news story and the original material in order to enable readers to analyse the story in the context of the original source material themselves (WikiLeaks, 2010).

The defence for releasing information obtained covertly might essentially subsist in the public’s “right to know” where the material is significant enough. What if the same standards were to be applied to the world of commerce as to the politicians mentioned in the WikiLeaks releases to date? Concern for propriety (accountability and ethical standards of practice) in politics must surely apply in the commercial world as well.

Julian Assange announced in December 2010 that an imminent wave of WikiLeaks releases would be about the behaviour of large banking institutions. By the time this editorial is in front of you, the impact of revelations in that arena will probably have begun. We have already seen some of the effects of publicising government financial subsidies in the US, where the Federal Reserve had secretly lent large sums to many corporations, including foreign ones with industrial bases in America. A spreadsheet of those loans is readily available (Wasef, 2010). Some corporations have egg on their faces as a result, and the embarrassment is at the very least a PR concern.

Some say “one should always act as if the boss is watching” but what if the boss is revealed as duplicitous and unreliable? Should one’s own standards be measured against the lowest denominator of our political masters and business leaders, against practitioners of deceit and prejudice? Would you trust your family to travel in a car made by a company whose managers indulge in secret dealings? Would you invest in or work for a company whose conduct was ethically reprehensible, or is it just a case of acknowledging that people are people and entitled to their opinions — and to their privacy?

Information is power, and information withheld leaves others to believe what may not be true. How much power do you really have then? There is going to be much more debate around the question of whether and when to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”.

In this issue of the AAAJ, we have a variety of creative work. Jayne Bisman’s poem, “Old fossils and accounting history”, addresses the function and value of the accounting historian. In this, she reminds us how the past can teach us a great deal about the present. Ray Tyndale’s poem, “In the pudding factory”, paints a picture of temptation amid a hectic production regime in a factory, in a sense balancing the worker against the business, and her other poem, “She pays her bills mate”, asserts the claim of a woman to be treated more fairly in her business dealings.

I look forward to your contribution to this section of the journal, which can be sent to me at: steve.evans@flinders.edu.au

Steve EvansLiterary Editor

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal (AAAJ) welcomes submissions of both research papers and creative writing. Creative writing in the form of poetry and short prose pieces is edited for the Literature and Insights Section only and does not undergo the refereeing procedures required for all research papers published in the main body of AAAJ.

References

Pepitone, J. (2010), “5 data breaches: from embarrassing to deadly”, CCNMoney.com, 14 December, available at: http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2010/technology/1012/gallery.5_data_;breaches/index.html (accessed 18 December 2010)

Wasef, B. (2010), “Federal Reserve reveals $2.3 billion was secretly loaned to Harley Davidson”, About.com Motorcycles, 4 December, available at: http://motorcycles.about.com/b/2010/12/05/federal-reserve-reveals-that-2-3-billion-was-secretly-loaned-to-harley-davidson.htm?nl=1 (accessed 5 December 2010)

WikiLeaks (2010), “About WikiLeaks”, WikiLeaks, available at: http://213.251.145.96/ (accessed 3 January 2011)