Whistle Blowers - For The Good Of Whom
07 January 2011 - Steve Lawson - Editors Comment
It isn't too many years ago that Hellmail became the biggest online forum for post and parcels. At its most popular, it received around 10,000 visitors a day and when it finally closed, there was even speculation from conspiracy theorists that it had been 'bought out'.
As one of the founders, I was delighted by the attention it received but over time it became clear that without a clear purpose it was in danger of becoming one huge costly white elephant.
I also felt that rather than going some way towards improving postal services (its original intention) it had the very real potential to damage reputations and see job losses within the industry. In fact this became such a bone of contention, it split Hellmail and I have since taken the reins single-handed, concentrating on thought-provoking articles by industry practitioners and news. Over time I was proved to be right on this and despite the many political arguments often attached to changes within the postal industry, Hellmail has managed to stay out of politics whilst contributing much to the debate at higher levels. To me, credibility counts for everything and one can hardly effect change whilst being preoccupied with cage-rattling.
I have often been accused of being too moralistic as editor, but I take the view that whistle-blowing should be for the 'greater good' rather than being purely sensationalist and that there are consequences, not least of which are the lives and families of others. I am continually tested in this regard and have deliberately held back or suppressed stories where I felt that the potential damage to others through publication was far greater than any perceived benefit. The Wiki-leaks explosion perhaps brought all this home to roost and whilst I admire the efforts of others for getting to 'the truth', I am not convinced that what may be of interest to the public is necessarily in the public interest. There is a distinction.
During the week I received a visit from an old friend who has since become a trade unionist within the health care profession - and a good one at that. Whilst on a personal level our views are very similar, Hellmail has taught me the importance of moderating my normally forthright views and to be far more analytical and balanced. However, that in it self can leave me open to criticism and in reality; there is nowhere I can sit that will please all. Like the BBC, Hellmail aims to be impartial knowing it never can be and somehow avoiding the trappings of sitting on the fence. It’s a tall order.
My friend is incredibly tolerant and will I am sure prove to be a good representative for those he aims to support, regardless of gender, race or religion and perhaps why he and I have remained such firm friends for so many years. Determination to see fair play will be key to his success as a union representative and a willingness to accept that in committing himself to the role he may make a few enemies along the way. We discussed much. including the usefulness of in-house industry propaganda newsletters which rarely gain much respect from those for whom they are intended, and the emergence of internet forums that purport to 'uncover the truth' about companies or organisations but which are all too often coloured by singular viewpoints that have little or no weight behind them and arguably do far more damage than good.
Some years ago whilst teaching, I also used to run classes for the long-term unemployed. The job was bestowed upon me on the basis that I was far more street-wise than other staff members and that "cutting the crap" was the only real way to gain their attention.
Many would arrive 'stoned' and those that did not had already decided that whoever I was, I was some kind of government puppet, there to drag them kicking and screaming into a low-paid job when they'd much rather be sat at home watching daytime TV.
I used to begin each new class by silently writing a long list of occupations on the whiteboard; grave digger, waiter, greenhouse attendant, truck cleaner, mechanic etc - until some bright spark would pipe up with: "Are those the jobs we're supposed to go for??" to which I would reply (to stunned silence) "No, these are all jobs I have done and learnt something from every single one!"
This revelation, apart from being something of an ice-breaker, made the point that few jobs are actually meaningless and skills are transferable even if not on paper. Learning when to keep ones mouth shut and when to make protestations is also an important skill, one that ultimately set the way for more challenging occupations and even at 51, I am still open to new ideas. The one thing I did learn is that throwing rotten tomatoes rarely gains the attention desired and that forging change from within is more productive and far more likely to stick. Anyone who has ever worked for a large organisation will understand that frustration felt when trying to make even small changes to routines that have been set in stone for years. The cog wheels turn incredibly slowly but standing outside demonstrating or striking generally breeds resentment and rarely achieves much at all, as history demonstrates. That does not mean that apathy should reign supreme, but talking the same language is key, and certainly denouncing an employer does nothing to secure confidence with customers who ultimately pay the wages. In that respect, whistle-blowing can be counter productive and whilst it might satisfy those doing the shouting, the consequences can be very damaging indeed.
It was while wrestling with these dilemmas that I suggested that Hellmail should close its forum for good and instead channel its energies towards being informative and reflecting on changes being felt across the world. Other forums have emerged since but they are expensive to run, if not in money, in time, often poorly moderated and have little or no influence on those that make the decisions. Without tight reins, they become repetitive cul-de-sac whinge platforms that no one cares about. Once they become too self-indulgent in this way, they cease to have credibility and perhaps more importantly, respect. Its a difficult balance at the best of times, particularly for those trying to make them work, but the moment they cut themselves off from management, government, industry bodies and even unions, they cease to have any purpose. If no one is listening, the game is well and truly over. Whistle-blowing can be a good thing but not when it merely serves to make things worse not only for those that blow the whistle, but those they work with. The reality is for all the so-called comradeship, each is only really concerned with his or her own lot.
This year, as well as being difficult in terms of financial cut-backs, will see greater pressure on postal operators to diversify and restructure in order to be at least solvent. For us, it will mean less focus on the viability of the Universal Service and more on whether services actually reflect the growing demands of business and consumers and the way in which internet connectivity will continue to impact and change the nature of traditional mail services. To my mind, simply bleating about change skips over the fact that we are all instrumental in the deciding how and when we communicate with each other. Post forms part of an enormous communications network that is changing on a scale as big as the last great industrial revolution, whether we choose to accept it or not. The fact is, we're demanding more, not less of instant communications and we cannot preserve letter post in aspic.
'Efficiency' is a rather over-used and meaningless word that invariably stands for 'doing the bare minimum as cheaply as possible' and make no mistake, privatisation of the Royal Mail will bring more of it. The alternative is little better, but crucially we all have to get to grips with a world that is becoming far more parcel-orientated and the virtual death of stamped mail. What stamped mail there is will just become incredibly expensive to deliver but by then we'll all be so used to collecting our mail on the move, we probably won't care too much.
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