Blaming the right bankers is too tricky: let's just pick one

Andrew Bailey thinks it "more than odd" that CEOs have avoided blame.

So far, those at the very top of failing banks - chairmen and chief executives -  have for the most part avoided going down with the ship, and today the Prudential Regulation Authority's Andrew Bailey has called them out. It is "more than odd", he said, speaking at a conference in London, that people at the very top of the chain have avoided formal charges while those beneath them shoulder the blame.

It is to my mind a very striking observation and difficulty with the crisis that no formal action has been taken against any chief executive or any chairmen of a failed institution. Not because I have a personal vendetta against them but it is more than odd that action has been taken against people lower down institutions but not at the top.

The explanation he'd been given, Bailey said, was that there was a “problem with the trail of evidence”, which allowed bosses to “delegate responsibility as well as tasks”. This was evidence, he said, of a “flaw in the system” peculiar to banking.

Blaming your juniors is hardly a custom specific to a single industry - but in this case, over misdemeanors that seem to spring directly from company culture,  it seems particularly logical to blame those at the top. (This recently did happen at HBOS - and today Bailey said he "welcomed" Vince Cable's investigatation of a boardroom ban for the "HBOS three" at the top, Lord Stevenson, Sir James Crosby and Andy Hornby.) Follow this logic any further, however, and things start looking a little less clear cut. Here's the FT on some further causes of the collapse of HBOS:

Three accessories after the fact not named in the report are Westminster, the City and the financial press. HBOS’s board were buccaneering heroes to many in the Noughties. Sir James’s New Labour chums secured his knighthood in 2006. Gung ho investors pushed HBOS shares higher between June 2004 and 2007 than any bank stock, Standard Chartered excepted. Business journalists mostly bought the bank’s bullish story, including Lombards past and present.

But if the blame is to be so broadly spread, it becomes meaningless. Blame too few, though, and it becomes scapegoating. Here's Robert Peston:

Here's the thing: if the HBOS troika are to be blacklisted from the City, why not ban those who ran the other failed banks, RBS, Bradford & Bingley and Northern Rock?

The important thing, as Peston points out, is to mete out the cathartic punishment so necessary to the public without damaging banks too much. As the potential for blame stretches to an entire industry and beyond, there will be an element of scapegoating here, and it would be moral to place this scapegoating at the top. But we must be careful not to set off a domino effect - if we blame x - why not blame y? - and risk harming too many powerful players in too many institutions. Perhaps the solution is just to pick one banker and drive them into the wasteland outside the city (hackney marshes/Essex?), and then have done. Suggestions on a post-card.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA