Americans exploit Continental complacency to rule business

George Pitcher is chief executive of issue management consultancy Luther Pendragon

Arriving back from the Continent at the start of this week, I find that very little has changed on the British corporate stage since the end of July. It is, perhaps, as sound an indicator of growing national prosperity as any other that there appears to have been a proper August silly season this year.

Most of those who make things happen in finance and industry have felt sufficiently at one with a strong pound, temporarily static interest rates and reasonably gentle rolling corrections in equity markets to head abroad.

It’s at times such as these that one can reflect on home thoughts from overseas and, from the poolside or the terrace, see some searingly simple business truths that are more usually concealed beneath the sophistications of modern corporate life.

These include the trivial, such as: Why does Gillette pack its razors in impenetrable containers and why do we happily send thousands of pounds to strangers for villa hire without any insurance?

But there are also the more serious observations, to wit: is the fact that the French rail network will take the Renault Espace but not the very similar Japanese Toyota Previa on its trains a fresh example of classic French protectionism of its motor industry? Furthermore, what is the point of having a Channel Tunnel if trains stop at Lille, while the sleeper service for Nice departs from Calais? Is this not the private sector behaving more incongruously than the public sector transport infrastructure and peeing away revenues?

Then there is the odd revelation. Mine came through various hotel cables and satellites in the form of Time Warner’s CNN. There’s corporate myth attached to this global news service. I’m sure the tale of how CNN made it big through non-stop coverage of the Gulf War will one day be exaggerated into the kind of corporate anecdote that had Henry Ford promising a car in any colour so long as it was black.

But there is a far more obvious and startling point to make about CNN. My revelation came not from the fact that CNN is now ubiquitous and almost seems to sit alongside domestic stations as a quasi-terrestrial choice, nor from the thought that Business Report presenter Sissel McCarthy makes London sound like America. It came from the realisation that CNN is the new cultural imperialism of the English-speaking world.

As it happens, I was at a hotel near Paris last Sunday morning and collected the first surreal headlines of the events of the night from CNN. I had Americans presenting me with GMTV’s coverage in London of the demise of the Princess of Wales less than 50 kilometres from my TV set.

This, in itself, is hardly amazing – an English speaker is likely, under these circumstances, to tune into CNN unless doggedly committed to improving his French. But, when it comes to business coverage, the globalisation of markets means that unless you are communicating in English you are not at the gaming table.

There is no need for us to be reminded that English is the international language of business. My point is that the increasing domination of CNN in linguistically diverse continents such as Europe not only consolidates that position, but consolidates it in the hands of the Americans, rather than in those of the British or anyone else. Hence my observation about cultural imperialism.

A couple of questions arise. The first is this: why is the quality of advertising on CNN so low? I have an abiding memory from the past two or three weeks of cranium-achingly repeated commercials for international hotel chains of the type that suggest that the Orient is worth visiting because children wave ribbons on the ends of sticks. All right – there is some good stuff. IBM’s efforts to design more effectively commercial Web-sites for companies sits well in CNN’s business coverage. But, generally, international business advertisers appear to stick with local terrestrial channels. Is this a reflection of advertisers’ inertia or of inadequate CNN marketing? We should be told.

The second question is this: what are local economies going to do about this encroaching American corporate cultural imperialism? They may feel that they have a good case for doing nothing. Pluralism in communications is invariably good for business and it is as well to be plugged into all effective international networks. But that is true only up to a point. The growing domination of CNN in Europe means that business is increasingly seen through American eyes, and consequently interpreted in an American way.

I don’t suggest that McCarthy and her colleagues are anything but objective and independent journalists, but that doesn’t alter the fact that cultural domination is the enemy of the pluralist of information sources to which European businesses aspire.

While in France, I learned that prime minister Lionel Jospin’s government intends to relax rules on French companies’ use of encryption software, so that French enterprises can use the Internet to buy and sell services more securely.

The fact that this sort of move lags perceived respectable practice throughout the rest of the world is symptomatic of French complacency when it comes to international information networks.

But the French are not the only ones to be complacent. In Britain, we tend to rely smugly on the notion that the international language of business is English. If the grip of CNN is anything to go by, we are wrong: it’s American.

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