Wikileaks founder Julian Assange says his next targets will be major corporations. He told Forbes magazine that fifty percent of the documents he is waiting to release relate to the private sector and that he is planning to publish material about a major US bank early next year. Without giving too much away, Mr Assange hinted at the contents of the leak:
It will give a true and representative insight into how banks behave at the executive level in a way that will stimulate investigations and reforms, I presume.
[T]here will be some flagrant violations, unethical practices that will be revealed, but it will also be all the supporting decision-making structures and the internal executive ethos that cames out, and that’s tremendously valuable. Like the Iraq War Logs, yes there were mass casualty incidents that were very newsworthy, but the great value is seeing the full spectrum of the war.You could call it the ecosystem of corruption. But it’s also all the regular decision making that turns a blind eye to and supports unethical practices: the oversight that’s not done, the priorities of executives, how they think they’re fulfilling their own self-interest. The way they talk about it.
In other words, it’s not just the corruption and sharp practices that need to be exposed, it’s also the values and cultural assumptions in a management group that allow these practices to go unchallenged.
Large corporations, and especially banks, try to individualise unethical behaviour which is why they try to sell the idea of the ‘rogue trader’. So we are told that there was nothing wrong at Barings it was just that Nick Leeson got a bit greedy. Everything was fine at Société Générale, it’s just that Jérôme Kerviel went a bit mad. It wasn’t Goldman Sachs that was trying to dupe clients, that was all Fabrice Tourre’s fault. And, of course, no-one knew about phone hacking at the News of the World; it was just a couple of rogue journalists doing their own thing.
In truth, of course, this is all rot. No-one operates in a vacuum. It is unusual for employees to take it upon themselves to commit abuses unless the system at some level condones that sort of behaviour. If the leaks promised by Julian Assange are as good as he claims, they will expose that culture; the ‘ecosystems of corruption’ that make it OK for people to cross a line.
But, far from trying to bring down the corporate world, Julian Assange claims to be doing it a favour:
WikiLeaks means it’s easier to run a good business and harder to run a bad business, and all CEOs should be encouraged by this.
It just means that it’s easier for honest CEOs to run an honest business, if the dishonest businesses are more effected negatively by leaks than honest businesses. That’s the whole idea. In the struggle between open and honest companies and dishonest and closed companies, we’re creating a tremendous reputational tax on the unethical companies.
Fine ideals indeed, although I’m not sure that all CEOs will see it that way.
Until now, Wikileaks has tended to focus on publishing government data. Shifting its spotlight onto the corporate world could have some interesting consequences. The values, assumptions and behaviour of the elites that run large companies could be exposed to a wider audience, especially if details of emails and other conversations are disclosed. It might even lead to pressure for tougher and internationally-agreed regulatory standards; something which we were promised after the banking crisis but which has been very slow coming.
Best of all, though, it will provide loads of data for those of us who are fascinated by organisational behaviour to pore over and write about. I’m very much looking forward to the first leak!