Journalism works like this: a story “breaks” and all the media channels start writing (or talking) about it. For a few days it’s all over the media. Then it’s forgotten. An interesting question is: who says what stories are relevant? But I’m not going to get into that as it’s the road to conspiracy theories (and that is where madness lies).
Outside the media organisations are thousands of people like me (freelance writers, PR consultants) clamouring to get stuff published. We’re offering ideas for articles or TV programmes and trying to promote things. “Go away,” is the universal reply from the media, “we’re very busy and important and you’re not. Piss off. We set the news agenda and your pathetic pitch doesn’t fit. Go and buy some advertising.”
What the freelance writer needs to do is keep an eye on the media and see if he (or she) can add something to the latest news story. Trouble is the media’s revenues have been taken away by the likes of Facebook and Google so the Guardian, for example, pay the same pittance (£80) for a long feature article as they did in the 1990s. It’s so hard to make a living out of journalism that I gave up trying years ago.
But sometimes a news story comes up where I really do have something to say and the first part of this article is my take on the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The bastards tried to recruit me and I look back now with a sigh of relief that I managed to dodge that particular bullet. I mentioned it on Facebook, spoke to the Associated Press and for a day my story was all over the Romanian news (I got my fifteen minutes of fame). Then Craig Turp, who runs a “think tank” in Romania called Emerging Europe, asked me a simple question that resulted in the following article. He asked me “what happened” and you can see the result on his website (here) or below the next paragraph.
The second part of this article is about my ethical code, the thing that saved me from Cambridge Analytica. I imagine that being recruited by them would be like joining the mafia or an intelligence agency – you’d never be able to move on; even if they would let you go you’d be unable to find ethical work as your reputation would be in ruins.
My ethical code has its roots in the ancient religions and now it has been tested by the most modern technologies; how did it cope? I’ve used it for over 30 years but this is the first time I’ve written about it.
Part 1: Cambridge Analytica tried to recruit me
I’m grateful to Cambridge Analytica for reinforcing a valuable lesson: the importance of having my own code of ethics.
Without this I could have been sucked into all manner of corrupt opportunities that came my way in Romania, where I worked for 17 years.
The main rule of my ethical code is to refuse work from companies that seem dubious, or that involve doing things I’d have to lie about.
So when Mark Turnbull, one of the directors of SCL, the company that owns Cambridge Analytica, asked me to work with them on Romania’s 2016 election my suspicions were raised.
Who would the client be? I asked, and what would the work involve?
He told me the client would be PSD, the most dubious political party in Romania. They were pitching to be their election fixers and I could be part of the team.
In an email dated 3rd August 2016, Turnbull described the job:
“What we have offered is to embed a two-person team into the current campaign team — a political strategist and a communications specialist, but effectively with similar skill sets/roles — to provide ongoing strategic advice and assistance across the campaign (branding, copywriting, PR, media relations, digital outreach etc) over the next 2-3 months.”
I told him there was no way that I’d work for a Romanian political party. I’d spent 17 years building up a good reputation as a problem solver and PR consultant, and I didn’t want to throw it all away.
And that was the end of our conversation. But the PSD party went on to win the Romanian elections (in December 2016) where they have caused outrage by undermining anti-corruption laws in order to stop investigations into their rich supporters. The leader of the PSD party is barred from office for criminal charges of corruption.
By this time I had moved to Liverpool where I set up shop as a PR consultant. My foreign work experience didn’t count for much in the UK so Mr Turnbull’s offer was a tempting one, but I knew that association with these people could taint my reputation.
The Channel Four Expose
Then I saw Mark Turnbull on Channel Four News. His colleague, Alexander Nix, talked about an undercover operation in an East European country that was so secretive that nobody even knew they were there.
I realised with a shock that the country they were referring to was perhaps Romania, and that I could have been part of an undercover team to subvert democracy. At that moment I felt like I had dodged a bullet. My next thought was that I had to share my experience with people in Romania, so at least they would know who had been trying to target them.
What’s the best way to inform people in a whole country about something like this? Facebook of course, where I have hundreds of personal connections with Romanians. Problem is that I only used the platform to post personal stuff, and share links, and don’t usually get much feedback
Also, I was considering deleting my Facebook account due to their role in this scandal, and so it came as a real surprise that when I told this story in a short post I came across some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met on the platform. Several highly intelligent Romanians that I’d barely heard from until now – including journalists, political analysts and financial experts – replied with brilliant insights into the opaque world of Romanian politics and the role of Israeli fixers in the last election.
I also emailed Mark Turnbull to ask if they’d got the job on the last Romanian election and, to my surprise, he quickly replied. He said they’d never worked for a Romanian political party. The head of PSD, Romania’s ruling party, also denied the connection. This doesn’t mean it’s not true as Cambridge Analytica themselves said on Channel 4 that their role in the un-named East European election was through a subcontractor.
Whether or not they influenced the last Romanian election isn’t really the main point here.
The key issue is that companies like this, which use military-grade psychology to manipulate whole populations, are allowed free reign across the world to coerce, deceive, blackmail and enable the highest bidder to win.
Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist who first uncovered the Cambridge Analytica story, wrote “we are in the midst of a massive land grab for power by billionaires via our data. Data which is being silently amassed, harvested and stored. Whoever owns this data owns the future.”
Saved by my ethical code
The more one looks into the details of this story the more complicated it becomes. After reading all about it, and chatting with Romania’s intelligentsia on Facebook, I felt like my brain had been fried. I had to go to bed in order to process it all.
But now I feel safe behind the protective wall of my personal ethical code. It has enabled me to avoid the wrong decisions when working in Albania, Bosnia, Romania and Tibet. I’ve also used it to avoid the temptation of beautiful young women in poor countries who offer their bodies for hire, as I’m aware that the promise of secrecy would be undermined by my own knowledge of what I’d done.
Rupert Wolfe Murray is a travel writer, PR consultant and author of 9 Months in Tibet. He lives on a houseboat on the River Thames.
Part Two – My ethical code
Before getting into this I want to make an important point: Big Data is getting the blame for Brexit and the election of Trump. I’m sure it played a role, as did Cambridge Analytica, but the other villains in the room (at least in the UK) are the tabloid newspapers.
Millions of Brits buy four daily newspapers that are not only rabidly anti-EU but they have been for over 10 years. It’s hard to know which of these rags is the worse but it’s clear who they are: the Express, the Mail, the Sun and the Daily Telegraph.
These papers have been drip feeding the British public a daily dose of hate, fear and xenophobia and the Brexit campaign was the ideal opportunity to stir up these negative emotions. I’m convinced that it was the tabloids that persuaded the Brits to vote for Brexit (politicians obviously helped, as did Facebook, but none of them were able to serve page after page of well edited opinion on a daily basis). I’m amazed the tabloids got away with it.
Okay, back to my ethical code.
I’ve had an ethical code for over 30 years but until this year I’d never written about it, or even discussed it with anyone. People are wary about anything that sounds like personal advice and it’s so easy to come across as sanctimonious.
I remember the exact moment when it started. I was in a car in Edinburgh with a redheaded woman whose name I have forgotten. She told me she has her own moral code and I remember thinking ‘you seem too immoral to have a moral code’. At that time I was preparing to hitchhike to Shanghai, get hired as an English teacher and stay away from Scotland for as long as possible. In order to do these things I needed to prepare psychologically and part of that process was adopting an ethical code.
So what is my ethical code?
This is where it gets a bit awkward because, you see, erm…I don’t have anything written down. There is no handy list of points I can stick on the wall. I don’t even have a book I can mention as the source of all this. The truth is that my ethical code is an amalgamation of lessons learned over the last 30 years and even though it’s not written down it does feel very clear and it gives me very good guidance in difficult times.
I was brought up a Christian and I suppose my code includes the main ethical guidelines found within the good book; I say “I suppose” because it wasn’t a conscious process and Christianity wasn’t forced down my throat. I particularly like what the Bible says about love and forgiveness but hate what political leaders have done in the name of my religion. Religion and ideologies are very similar, they are noble ideas that end up getting used as weapons of war by political leaders. You could argue that religions are the old fashioned form of psy-ops; psychological tools to manipulate people.
I spent a lot of time in Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and they had an influence on me too – but I find them difficult to describe. The word that springs to mind is karma, a concept that feels like one of the foundation stones of my code. But what is karma? I looked it up and found this definition on the BBC: “Teachings about karma explain that our past actions affect us, either positively or negatively, and that our present actions will affect us in the future.”
I also remember the phrase: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. This too is a foundation stone in my code. But I need to make an important point here about religions; they all have similar ethical codes and religions have more in common with each other than differences. I feel I have taken the best bits from various religions but I don’t feel weighed down with guilt or the other negative by-products of the God business.
I just found a handy ethical code that I agree with, and it’s worth looking at that link as there’s a Cowboy Code that has something often missing from this issue: humour. I like the fact that my code is unwritten because I can adapt it to any situation without compromising its integrity. Essentially, my code is just an intention to do no harm.
Also, if I had written it up it would have removed the element of mystery and this is a very important part of my life. Each day is a mystery to me, as is the future; it’s what makes me happy. It’s also the way I travel. When I got to Tibet I knew nothing about the country except that I was going to hitch hike through it en-route to Shanghai. Because I was starting from a place of pure ignorance I was open to everything, I learned constantly (picking up the language in the process), and each time I found a temple or monastery it felt like a mystery was being revealed before my eyes.
And why should I write it down? I created this ethical code for myself and I don’t want to impose it on others. If it became tangible there might be a tendency to try and apply it rigidly, and that’s where things like this just don’t work (think of all those diet books and “how to” books we have lying around, neglected after a moment of enthusiasm).
This makes me wonder: what would have happened if the bible had never been written? Could the stories and ethics of Christianity have been handed down verbally? Would the religion have survived or was the fact that there was a huge book, with great stories, the key to its success? Did other religions die out because of their lack of literature?
I once suggested to a Romanian political analyst called Alina Mungiu-Pippidi that if politicians had their own ethical code corruption wouldn’t be so rife. She agreed but said an ethical code should be imposed on them. But these sorts of codes are in force at every big organisation and people are expert at avoiding rules they don’t believe in. The same isn’t true for your own code as you believe in it, you developed it and you know it’s in your own best interest to follow it.
Environmental policy is a good illustration of avoiding ethical rules. Endless laws are passed in order to save the planet, but they all have one problem that undermines them – they’re imposed by a political body that the majority don’t respect. As a result they’re just another set of rules to be ignored or (if you’re a politician) paid lip service to.
If I was a world leader I’d try and get agreement that if we carry on living as we are the world as we know it will come to an end. If we could all agree on this, the result would be real political will to do something – and that’s what’s been missing as the interests of big business and the comfort of individuals always trump what’s best for the environment.
If we could all agree that the end is nigh, we could then act on the following simple question which could change things immediately: is the thing we’re doing (or proposing) good for the planet? If the answer is no then don’t do it, or change it. This could apply to me as I throw my coffee grinds into the bin, rather than the compost, or a major corporation about to build a new office on a green field. It would also give everyone, and every party, the flexibility to do the right thing in their own way, and the rationale needed to make sacrifices.
The importance of self-interest
There is a strong element of self-interest in my ethical code and I think it’s important to embrace this rather than be ashamed of it. It boils down to the simple rule that I try not to do things that will have a negative impact on me in the future. This really explains it all; don’t be nasty to people or it will come back to you; don’t work with dodgy companies or your reputation will suffer; be honest at all times as lies have a nasty habit of coming back to haunt us.
I’ve spent a lot of my life in Communist and post-Communist countries. These places are full of people who don’t trust each other and often assume that I must be a spy for MI6 (some have even asked me if I am a spy and my standard reply is ‘I wish I was as I could do with the money’). On the one hand I liked the association – I’d always wanted to be like James Bond – and on the other I found it a useful discipline: if the local intelligence service is listening to everything I say, and maybe even following me around the streets, I’d better make sure I don’t say, write or do anything compromising. That experience has made it easy for me to transition into the new world of mass surveillance by FAMGA (Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Amazon). I don’t have any secrets.
This was all tested when I was married to someone I didn’t want to live with anymore. I had an affair and started to live a lie. I was breaking my own ethical code and it was unbearable. I felt myself being pulled in two. I became a liar and a cheat but I couldn’t sustain it. Before long I was divorced. Looking back on that unhappy period I can say that my ethical code won through.
I don’t think an ethical code can stop you from doing the wrong thing but it’s always there to quietly remind you that you have done something wrong – it’s a guilty conscience – and that you’d better do something about it or you’ll end up more unhappy than you are now.