Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Trust and Conflicts of Interest

Questions of trust often involve appreciating (Vickers) or making sense of (Weick) a person's judgements/actions. Do these judgements/actions seem reasonable given the position, perspective and partial knowledge of the person at the time? Can we make better sense of these judgements/actions by framing them within an alternative agenda (e.g. conflict of interest)?

For example, if James Murdoch, as CEO of BSkyB agrees a particular deal with News International, can we regard this deal as reasonable and fair, or is there any evidence that he has been influenced by a family relationship to the management of News International?

In the case of “related party transactions” – which way is the burden of proof? Is it for James Murdoch to demonstrate that he has not been influenced – perhaps by stepping aside from the detailed negotiations – or is it for his critics to show evidence that he has? (There are sometimes codes of practice and Chinese walls for potential conflicts of interest, but the general question remains open.)

If James Murdoch goes through several tough negotiations and produces good results for BSkyB, the shareholders may start to trust him more. They may never be willing to suspend all disbelief and waive all scrutiny, but this would be no different to the situation facing any other CEO.

(Note - this is quite different from the Sleeper pattern, where a security threat lies dormant for an extended period. The difference is that a sleeper carefully avoids situations where the threat he poses might be prematurely exposed.)