NATIONAL EMERGENCY OR TECHNICAL GLITCH?

For the last month the UK banking sector, arguably the country’s most important source of tax revenues, has been under fire. A typically British media circus of Parliamentary Committees, chairman resignations, CEO statements, CEO resignations, declined bonuses, and chairman ‘unresignations’ have created a lot of buzz. We like buzz, we create a lot of it, as you can see from our well-received spoof earlier in the year.

More concerning for those who, like Positive Marketing’s team, promote the vital economic role of technology, is the UK media’s continuing treatment of technology-based stories, even ones described as ‘the industry’s worst ever computer breakdown,’ as a mere distraction from political windbags and celebrities.


Tragically, even in an era where all businesses rely on technology and regulators use IT to check for wrongdoing, the UK press corps seem determined to skim over the important, albeit technical, details of how this happened and could happen again. Much easier to focus on self-serving politicians, calls for resignations and celebrity takedowns. But this was the tech story which would not go away.

To recap – a system error at a UK-government-owned bank meant a batch process, which may have worked perfectly for decades, went hellishly wrong. The results were non-payment of salaries, new homeowners being temporarily evicted from their future homes, vital medication missed and even extended incarceration for those legally free – all because no payments could move. A rip-roaring news story if ever there was one.

So, how was this major news reported? A scant few articles in the week it wreaked havoc (less than 1,000, or about the daily count of a celebrity divorce, according to Google News). Then virtually nothing over the weekend, where it was relegated to a small story midway through the news section of the UK’s best-selling national following, presumably, an effective damping down by the bank’s PR team. Unfortunately for the mainstream media, the issues were not simply resolved by ‘switching on and off again’.

By Monday there were still several million disgruntled UK citizens and a Twitter storm of brand damage and, inconveniently for some, the whole thing had to be picked up once again. The good news (forgive the shameless plug for our work) is this resulted in some intelligent comment as to what went wrong and why it WILL happen again , not least in The Economist (subscription required) and The Independent [Disclosure – this is what we do for clients].

Why did such a major story fail to be covered or even sensibly debated by the nation’s media? Three reasons, some of which we have touched on before:

1. Lack of expertise (as The Guardian’s Charles Arthur’s excellent, much commented, article reminded, few journalists these days have the expertise to even understand the issue)

2. An obsession with blaming the faceless (bankers) instead of taking responsibility (changing banks)

3. Trivialisation of the role of technology in everyday life. The truth is most of the outages which do occur regularly are easily avoidable with decent engineering but instead are seen as technical glitches, the fault of the technology sector rather than the business managers who are meant to be controlling them.

Thank God for the Barclays debacle (more later) which managed to distract the public’s attention away from the glitch and which has effectively let the bank off the hook. To-date there has been no further explanation of what exactly went wrong or what is being done to prevent future outages – nor can we expect any in the near future. As the media circus turns back to Westminster, it seems even ‘computer glitches’ which result in massive disruptions and large-scale pay-outs, are frankly not news for the UK media – yet.

So, let’s just await the next ‘glitch’ – here’s hoping this one’s even bigger. It might be just what this country needs.

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