The idea that decision-makers have conflicts of interest is well established in law and the governance of private organisations. Those who have a direct or indirect (say, through a relative) financial interest in a decision usually have to excuse themselves from the decision-making process or at least declare their interest.
Though formal rules are less common than for decision-makers, the idea of a conflict of interest has spread into public debate and commentary. Two recent examples of a potential ‘conflict of interest’:
In a recent episode of The Gruen Transfer, an ABC TV panel show that discusses advertising, regular panel member Todd Sampson expressed strong views against an ad from a child abuse charity. Last Monday, the Fairfax press ran a story reporting that Sampson’s agency had done work for that child abuse charity, until they had a falling out in 2003. The reported claim was that this was a conflict of interest that Sampson should have disclosed.
Today, The Age ran a story about the departure of Monthly editor Sally Warhaft, reportedly over excessive meddling by editorial board chair Robert Manne. The report contains these paragraphs, emphasis added:
Monthly contributors contacted by The Age, most of whom declined to be identified, expressed shock at Dr Warhaft’s departure and praised her abilities as an editor.
“I’m deeply disappointed by what has transpired,” said regular contributor Gideon Haigh. “It does change my attitude to the magazine. Sally was a very good editor, as good an editor as I’ve worked with in 25 years as a journalist.”
What isn’t mentioned in the report is that Haigh
is was Warhaft’s partner.
In the Sampson case, he says he was not even aware that his agency had a history with the charity. But even if he had known, clearly any financial relationship is long gone. So the distorting ‘interest’ could only be some residual bitterness at the falling out. Not only is this unlikely – few of us identify so strongly with our employers that we hold grudges on their behalf – but it would stretch the concept of an ‘interest’ so far that much time meant for debate would be spent on a long and dreary cataloguing of our prior involvement with the parties to the discussion.
In claims like the one against Sampson, the conflict of interest claim is itself more distorting of the debate than the interest. It deflects discussion away from the substantive issues, and towards side-issues. Those who have the weaker substantive case are the most likely to try to take advantage of a ‘conflict of interest’ claim.
In the Warhaft case, someone commenting on their
partner former partner would normally trigger a disclosure, and it would have been preferable for it to have occurred in this case. But on the other hand, it was probably because Haigh rated his relationship with Warhaft more highly than his relationship with the magazine that he was prepared to go on the record on an issue that would have been in people’s minds – was she sacked for incompetence? – how does knowing this affect our interpretation of Haigh’s remarks? Is he more biased because of some residual affection or less biased because despite the break-up he can still see Warhaft’s talent as an editor?
Also, the other contributors were speaking anoymously, presumably because their interest in the Monthly‘s high payment rates could be jeopardised if they defended Warhaft publicly. They put their interests above our interests as readers in having sources willing to publicly stand by the information they are putting into a newspaper.
I thought Warhaft was doing a good job three years ago and still think she did a good job, despite publishing that nonsense from the PM. Or am in defending her in a dispute with Robert Manne because Manne has attacked me in print a couple of times?
Ultimately, inquiries into the motives of people in public debate don’t get us very far. They are hard to know for sure, and never more than a modestly useful heuristic, since someone can be right despite having an interest an issue, and wrong despite being disinterested. Indeed, someone with an interest is likely to have more knowledge as well as the greater potential for bias. Knowing about interests is no substitute for knowing about the substantive issues.
And in the examining of the substantive issues, the ‘conflicted’ party is usually not the only voice being heard, so there are the correctives of other opinions, and rarely will any individual debate determine an issue. The likely negative effects of a conflict of interest in public debate are so low that I would be sorry to see the norms on disclosure shift any further towards reporting them.