Why does everybody in shipping get so defensive when it is criticised? And why do so few of us get angry when the criticism is unjustified?
The publication of a series of over-the-top New York Times generalised articles on shipping that I wrote about a month ago is a case in point that I will not belabour again. Another episode was a few months earlier, when ‘anti bribery compliance expert’ Trace was widely quoted within the industry and in mainstream media claiming that shipping was the most corrupt industry in the globe. This was also pure hogwash, but there was hardly any protest by the industry.
Of course, what Trace President Alexandra Wrage was quoted as having said was convoluted- “In many ways, the shipping industry is exposed to more levels of corruption than any other industry, as it is a global industry that does not have a mature anti-corruption compliance culture,” she reportedly said- but the headlines, not rebutted by Trace, all read “Global shipping has been announced as the most corrupt industry” or some such. Nobody defended the industry with any vigour, or questioned the findings, or examined Trace’s credibility or some of its leap of faith statements that clearly confused fraud with corruption.
Shipping the most corrupt industry? More corrupt than banking that brought the world’s economic order to its knees in recent years? More corrupt than mining, or oil, or the agricultural monolithic entities that routine bribe politicians, bureaucrats and regulators with billions every year across the world, and who are responsible for both the decimation of the environment and the reduction to penury of entire continents? More corrupt than the defence and allied businesses that control government heads that start- and sustain- wars for profit? More corrupt than construction? More corrupt than many of the biggest names in IT, that have reduced us all to commodities, storing our personal information on servers halfway across the world and selling it to advertisers in one way or another? More corrupt than pharmaceutical giants, hand in glove with national and international regulators who doctor medical data and spread panic- sometimes bribing even WHO officials- to sell pills with hidden side effects that nobody really needed in the first place?
Shipping the most corrupt? Bah. Tell me another story, please, but first tell me what you have been smoking, Trace.
It is not my contention that there is no corruption in shipping; I have spent almost all my working life in the industry in one form or another. I am not even saying that shipping is the cleanest industry- all I am saying is that it far, far from being the most corrupt. And I am saying that shipping, like countries in the politically incorrect Third World, suffers from a perception problem and so gets unnaturally and unnecessarily defensive, like those countries do. They don’t point out, for example, that while corruption is very high in their own countries, big business controls western politicians and systems- and the entities that grade corruption globally, whether they are from the UN or private organisations- to a far greater extent than industry in developing countries. Shipping also needs to fight perceptions with facts. Perception is not always reality, especially when it is doctored, distorted and full of spin.
I think I know why nobody gets angry in shipping at this unfair categorisation. There are two reasons, I think. One is that the industry is controlled by bankers and financiers and the like today, who probably see themselves as investors (they are often speculators, though) and who have no emotional attachment to the industry. The old timers in the industry- whether traditional shipowners or administrators- are heavily outnumbered. And two, much of the operational part of the industry- studded with ex-seamen- has willingly allowed itself to be reduced; they have become accountants. Like with many who sail today, most ashore, I can see, do not feel a sense of belonging with the industry; they have a ‘not my circus, not my monkeys’ attitude towards shipping.
Pride in the profession has gone out the window. Small wonder, then, that shipping, secretive by nature and by nature of business both, is easy to bad-mouth. It is left defenceless, its flanks exposed to anybody who wants to snipe at it. And that is a shame.