Intimate exposés involve peering through private portals. Those who enjoyed the scoops without questioning their provenance were complicit by default and their attempt to separate themselves from the news-gathering operation was the ultimate in cognitive dissonance.
And so to Ryanair: the airline we all love to hate, but still use because we want everything to be cheap and convenient and are happy to turn a blind eye to how those low prices are delivered, until a major crisis leaves hundreds of thousands of people without the flights they booked and it becomes impossible to ignore. At which point, we vent our fury at maverick chief executive Michael O’Leary, who knows us better than we know ourselves, and abdicate all responsibility for any exploitation carried out in the service of our something-for-next-to-nothing culture.
Now the company has gone into meltdown, everyone is expressing outrage at the contempt shown to both its pilots and its customers. But the truth is Ryanair has been behaving badly for almost 20 years. O’Leary’s zero-f***s-given attitude has long been a key component of his marketing strategy – a means of distinguishing himself from the crowd. Like an Irish Basil Fawlty, his irascible nature and abuse of those who questioned his judgment was part of his shtick.
He understood that as long as he continued to give us easy access to a range of European capitals, he could get away with almost anything. He could bring in arbitrary charges, keep passengers sweltering in temperatures of 25C, sell scratch cards and tacky merchandise mid-air, then arbitrarily decide to change the carry-on luggage policy, and we would keep on coming back for more. Sometimes it felt like he was conducting a weird variation of the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment (only this time testing how much pain we were prepared to inflict on ourselves). If so, it isn’t yet clear whether or not we’ve reached our limits.
Certainly, the company’s incompetence and poor customer relations scaled new heights last week as 18,000 more flights were cancelled and 34 routes suspended. Some pilots, disillusioned by the poor working practices, have moved on, sparking the staff shortages and many of those who remain are using their employer’s current travails as leverage in their campaign for better conditions.
Meanwhile, the Civil Aviation Authority has finally taken O’Leary down a peg or two telling him if he doesn’t offer to reroute passengers on alternative flights with other airlines as European law requires he will face enforcement action.
Yet – as of Friday night – the airline’s shares were hardly any lower than they were when the scandal broke, suggesting the market doesn’t believe the company has suffered an irreversible reputational blow. And O’Leary has delivered his mea culpa. It isn’t hard to envisage a future in which the current furore blows over and everything reverts to the way it was before.
This ethical shoddiness is not confined to Ryanair, it’s the way of modern capitalism. You see it in Sports Direct, with its tatty goods and inadvertent failure to pay the minimum wage; you see it in Uber, with its scant regard for safety and its low pay for drivers; you see it in Amazon, with its obsession with targets and tendency towards tax avoidance (all so we, the time-poor buyers, can have our goods delivered to our doors within hours of clicking the button).
The long-term consequences of these business models should be clear: they drive down earnings and fuel the growth of the precariat: that group of workers on short-term or zero hour contracts who do not know how much (or even if) they will earn from one day to the next. But our need for instant gratification blurs our vision; so we keep on signing for our Amazon packages while lamenting the dire state of our high streets, just as we keep on reading newspaper articles for free while lamenting the decline in the standards of journalism.
It’s a self-perpetuating problem: the less enticing our shops are, the more likely we are to buy online; the less secure our salaries, the more likely we are to put low cost before customer service or good working conditions.
And the bigger the companies grow the harder it becomes to stand against them, as Wigtown bookshop owner Shaun Bythell recently demonstrated. Amazon is killing his business, but Bythell relies on it for some of his income. When it suspended him for forgetting to tick a box, he lost so much money he had to get rid of a member of staff. Yet his own book, The Diary Of A Bookseller (read an extract on page 45), is still available to buy on Amazon Prime.
As people like Bythell are squeezed, those at the top continue to climb up the rich list; O’Leary is now worth £708m, Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley, £1.5bn and Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, £54bn.
In all of this, it is – as Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby pointed out – the young who suffer most. They are the ones destined to spend their lives in the gig economy; the ones without any prospect of a sustainable and fulfilling career.
No wonder so many of them are attracted to Jeremy Corbyn’s message that modern capitalism is broken. In order to fix it, the Labour leader wants more state intervention. But, as consumers, we must surely take a degree of responsibility for our dysfunctional economic model. Though the dominance of such companies is making it increasingly difficult to escape their grasp, we can still resist by withdrawing our custom; by staging a boycott. Perhaps the Ryanair debacle is sending us a message: we should exercise this power before it’s too late.