Marie Colvin and an Open Society

Marie Colvin 3

Marie Colvin.
Photo: Richard Flaye

January 22nd was the first anniversary of the death of Marie Colvin, the bravest person I have ever known. Her murder was a war crime: she and her colleagues, civilians all, were targeted by the Syrian army because they were broadcasting the truth to the world about the massacres carried out by the regime.

This picture was taken by Marie’s partner, on a sailing holiday in Turkey with friends a couple of years before her death. We would spend most days sailing, then go out in the evenings and usually order fish for dinner. With her straightforward manner and great charm, Marie would if necessary blag her way winningly into the kitchens to check that the particular fish being provided for us was fresh. Chefs who tried to palm her off with older specimens quickly learned that she knew her stuff. On holiday or not, it was clearly in her nature that she was going to get to the truth, no matter what. Everything was done with great good humour, and she came away from these encounters having earned their warm respect.

Marie was not the only journalist murdered last year: 90 were killed in that same effort to bring us the truth. ‘A Day Without News?’, the campaign against the targeting of journalists in war, chose the anniversary of her death to launch their movement. It is well worth supporting, if we want to know the facts about what the ruthless, the rabid and the powerful are up to.

Open information is perhaps the key weapon against dictators and totalitarian regimes of all kinds. Such regimes are not always obvious. In democratic countries across the globe most people suffer under one variety of totalitarian system, less overtly dangerous than Assad’s Syria but nonetheless insidious. In corporate or government jobs employees have no right to information, and they are required to obey the  powers that be and the managers who serve them. Whether employed by governments, by drug companies or by the health service, whistleblowers are persecuted. Their punishment is not usually death, but from then on they tend to face difficulties in their lives, sometimes enormous ones.

However, there is one kind of corporation where open information is the rule, and where people who raise problems are welcomed – namely, companies that are owned by their employees. A good example is the John Lewis Partnership, whose story is told with many others in Beyond the Corporation: Humanity Working. In 1929 John Spedan Lewis transferred the family-owned company into trust for the employees. He saw from history that a free press is vital if the powerful are to be kept honest, and accordingly he built a free press into the constitution of the company. Over 80 years later the weekly Gazette is still required to publish all letters sent to it, even the anonymous ones. Directors have to respond to these letters. The all-round benefits are enormous. Rumours are surfaced and the facts provided. Policies are given an airing not in the abstract, but in response to the specific questions that concern people. Patently, this is an open culture: it is not going to be possible to hide what is going on. If there is an attempt at a cover-up, someone will write a letter about it. Year by year, this openness builds confidence and trust. The employees are all genuine partners in the business – for example their elected representatives hold the board regularly to account (the proceedings are published verbatim), and they have the right if necessary to require the resignation of the Chairman. In conventionally owned companies secrecy prevails, and top-down power structures persecute people who expose the truth. In employee ownership, criticism is welcome, so that problems can be identified and solved. The contrast could not be more vivid. Which kind of society would you like to live in?

Marie sacrificed her life in the effort to ensure that we can continue to live in an open society. We should extend that openness to the places where we work, too.

 

 

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