George Pitcher: As hypocrites, we must smoke out all hypocrisy

The chairman of a tobacco giant has been pilloried for saying that he would not like his own children to smoke. He’s entitled to his private life, says George Pitcher

No one takes much notice these days if a priest says that he or she does not believe in the Virgin Birth. Nor, on a more worldly level, does anyone care much if pop stars admit to avoiding their own music.

Similarly, I am not sure that former mass-market jewellery retailer Gerald Ratner would attract so much attention today for making allegedly pejorative public remarks about his own product range.

But there are still some walks of life in which it is taboo to suggest that any opinion other than the one you are meant to hold is valid.

Third-world debt is a case in point. I have written here before that a wholesale write-off of Western debt to developing economies may be in the best interest neither of lenders nor borrowers and have been criticised for the oddity of my opinions.

More recently, influential people decided that it was unacceptable to criticise the US in any area of foreign policy in the wake of last September, though happily a plucky resistance group has survived in the face of this bullying new orthodoxy.

I could go on. We are not allowed to say that we enjoyed a journey on a Virgin train – that is a notion greeted with far greater incredulity than the Virgin Birth, as it happens. Nor, in smart circles, are we allowed to say that we enjoy the occasional McDonald’s lunch. Nor can we say that Spike Milligan wasn’t actually very funny.

All these things can be true. But it is not their inherent truth that is the problem – it is that you have dared to voice them, when the Truth Police have decided you are wrong.

Last week, it was the turn of British American Tobacco chairman Martin Broughton to discover that the expression of a self-evident truth can be a very dangerous indulgence. It might even turn out to have damaged his health, if those who would litigate against him have their way.

But Broughton’s experience differs from the other examples I have cited, where views are considered contemptible if they don’t accord with the prevailing popular mood. Broughton was pilloried for concurring with the prevailing view. It is just that he, as chairman of a tobacco group, is not allowed to share these opinions. What Broughton said was that he had advised his children not to smoke.

This is, clearly, quite unacceptable for a man in Broughton’s position. He has a responsibility to his shareholders, his family and to himself to be seen as a man who forces the children of the world – particularly those in developing economies – into chronic tobacco addiction.

Naturally, the main concern here is not one of popular perceptions, but of money. Where you see a front-page article concerning a tobacco group’s position on the efficacy of its products, it is a safe bet that you won’t have to look far for a lawyer.

No one really gives a hoot what Broughton’s personal opinions are. What really matters to a number of avaricious people in the legal profession is that Broughton’s remarks present an opportunity to bring lucrative class actions against a company that admits that its products can kill people.

Nevertheless, it is worth examining the core cause of the outrage that is directed at Broughton for his remarks, because it says much about the behaviour we expect of companies.

It is, apparently, as unacceptable for Broughton to run a company whose products he discourages his family from using as it is for philosopher Roger Scruton to seek employment from a company whose products he endorses and enjoys.

OK, there were conflict-of-interest issues in the recent Scruton circumstance, when he was caught courting a Japanese tobacco firm for lobbying work. And, OK, one has to wonder what sort of quality of life Broughton enjoys, working for a company whose product he does not enjoy and even shields his family from.

But the idea that one’s working life has to be consistent in all respects with one’s private life is alarming. For one thing, where would that leave the lawyers who are piling into class actions against BAT with such glee?

I imagine that there is not a single smoker among them, if their reactions to Broughton’s comments are to be consistent. And, anyway, when have lawyers ever had to believe in the veracity of their client’s case? Lawyers compromise themselves daily, at least as much as Broughton does.

It is no good pretending that the Broughton issue is only about legal liabilities. The BAT website is clear about the hazards of smoking. There are wider issues about commercial hypocrisy here, and we should be careful about the motes in Broughton’s eye, so long as there are beams in ours.

This touches on issues of working life in a libertarian society. Am I to be banned from working for a motorcycle company because I would not want my son to ride one? Or for a brewer, because I tell my daughter I never want to see her drunk? Is the chairman of the Rank Group a hypocrite if he tells his children not to gamble?

We can tell Broughton how to run his company – and BAT’s legal liabilities are an important issue – but let’s not tell him how to run his family.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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