28 June 2003

The Cult of the CEO
They're corporate superheroes who lay claim to ever more millions - for better or for worse. And it's usually the little people who pay.

Four years ago, US president Bill Clinton went to Mississippi to visit the home of Bernie Ebbers and WorldCom, the company Ebbers had founded. At the time, the baby telco had expanded like a teenager on steroids to have a market value of $US120 billion.

"I came here today because you are the symbol of 21st-century America," Clinton said. "You are the embodiment of what I want for the future."

Oops. These days such symbols lie shattered in financial ruins and the future seems to belong to anyone but the Bernie Ebbers of the world. Instead, the global economy is still counting the real cost of billions of dollars worth of dodgy accounting, of grandiose business dreams unconnected to financial reality and of a corporate greed so pervasive that it makes previous eras of excess seem almost sweetly old-fashioned.

But of all the extraordinary corporate stories of the 1990s, none has been more powerful than what Gideon Haigh chooses to call the cult of the CEO. This cult might have been most advanced in the US, but Australia typically picked up the trend with blind enthusiasm.

Chief Executive Officer of the United States George Bush exemplifies the cult of the celebrity CEO as do CEO of the Commonwealth of Australia John Howard and CEO of the United Kingdom Tony Blair. None of the three have produced very stellar performances. All have problems with corporate governance issues, whether it's Bush insisting that 'advise and consent' makes consultation on judicial appointments unconstitutional or Howard trying to solve problems with the Senate by acquiring even more power for himself.

But CEO Blair's PR machine has managed to move from a cult to actual worship. Appearing before the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee Alastair Campbell said:

I find it incredible and I mean incredible that people can report based on one single anonymous uncorroborated source - and let's get to the heart of what the allegation is - that the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, the intelligence agencies, people liker myself connived to persuade Parliament to send British forces into action on a lie. That is the allegation. I tell you, until the BBC acknowledge that is a lie, I will keep banging on, that correspondence file will get thicker and they had better issue an apology pretty quickly.

And essentially that argument, repeated in similar terms in Australia and the US, is that we cannot think about the possibility of sexed-up intelligence because it would mean disbelieving the relevant CEOs. We know that sexed-up intelligence was used because we know the Niger claim was untrue. We know that sexed-up intelligence was used because we know, for example, that Rumsfeld's claim of WMDs deployed around Tikrit and Baghdad was untrue.

An injunction never to disbelieve the CEO was not good enough for HIH or Enron. It should not be good enough for Australia, the UK or the US.

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