One of society’s key challenges is to ensure that all opportunities to make a profit are reconciled with decency and respect for human rights. At the Winter Tällberg Forum, February 23 - 25, 2012, we discussed this challenge with specific focus on the protection of freedom of expression and association.
There was a resounding “Yes” from participants in answer to the question asked by the Forum theme: “Is Free Speech also the business of Free Enterprise?”. Many reasons were given, but in brief, all agreed that the benefits to business of an open, transparent and free public discourse are overwhelming in the long term, and that the advantages of open markets to development are largely lost without free speech.
Individuals within business can play a strong supportive role in development of both corporations and society by matching their values and business acumen with social intelligence in decisions they take every day. This means ensuring a good analysis of political and social realities in the markets in which they operate or plan to operate, throughout supply chains and among employees taking in intelligence that goes beyond immediate cost implications. In this way, the interface between business and free speech can be seen as a personal one, asking the question, “how far am I willing to compromise on my values in reaching the desired margins?”.
But structural issues such as legal frameworks, government funding strategies, national policy, business models and religious or cultural factors can also either hinder or facilitate freedom of expression and association. These represent interfaces through which businesses connect to the societies around them in both home and foreign markets. The evolution of each of these interfaces, from legal frameworks to business models can be developed and supported in creative ways with the help of innovative businesses that see these as opportunities for change. Often, civil rights organisations can help unpick specific issues in this area, and in many areas, businesses are more knowledgeable and empowered than they perhaps recognise, with collected historic learning, engaged staff and proactive industry associations as potential resources.
The Winter Tällberg Forum was held under the Chatham House Rule to enable all participants to share freely their experience, express their views and enrich the conversation. The group was a carefully assembled mix of approximately 50% participants from business (strategy, technology, public affairs, CSR and Human Rights functions), complemented by participants from civil society groups or government in order to ensure a balanced conversation that could reveal both the stresses and opportunities in the global system. The dynamic of the group created strong opinions within the friendly and warm atmosphere that characterises a Tällberg conversation. Complex issues require time to reflect, and this was provided by music and a walk along the beautiful banks of the frozen Mälaren Lake.
Conversations and consultations between sectors of society – such as civil rights groups working in the field, businesses bringing their capital to new economies and governments – are a rich source of new knowledge and ideas to better understanding where business activities impact freedom of speech. The process of mutual understanding between different sectors is notoriously difficult and it takes time to recognise the potential for alternative solutions or constructive initiatives. As with the growing prioritising of environmental issues, social values such as freedom of speech, civil rights and social development will benefit from a new and more constructive relationship between international businesses and civil society groups.
Conversations at the Winter Tällberg Forum demonstrated the value of taking time in open conversation to go beyond traditional positions and find points of contact and understanding between those present. Supporting a safe space for dialogue between all stakeholders in countries where free speech is stifled and engaging with worker’s rights issues are just two examples of how partnerships with stakeholders can support businesses embed the protection of free speech in day to day operations – and address the reputational and business risks of not doing so. The pressure of competition, the demand for low prices by consumers and high margins by business models are clearly challenges for supply chain management that create some of the most difficult decisions facing business leaders. Further problematic areas are conflicts between global best practice and local legislation or norms such as in highly corrupt societies. Again, partnerships with civil groups on the ground and with home governments and international industry associations provide ways to address these difficult areas and avoid compromising on values. Many businesses already use these routes in dealing with human rights issues.
Critical voices and the public exposure of corruption are tools for development, for a stable business environment and to provide feedback both in democracies and in the marketplace. Here quality journalists command an essential social position. Both developed and developing societies struggle to protect minority voices and those that criticise the status quo. Without an independent media and a funding model to maintain an independent media, this essential role is threatened. Quality investigative journalism competes with entertainment for both funding and visibility in media markets. At the same time, rapid developments in technology are changing information flows and increasing the number of voices that can be heard in almost every country. Media as a tool for free speech is facing new challenges and the critical role of journalism is in flux. Freedom of speech is not only threatened by repressive state apparatuses, but also by cultural norms and business models across the world.
During the Winter Tällberg Forum, all the above and much more was discussed and explored, with the partnership between business, civil society and journalism emerging in conversations as the most powerful tool – and one that is not always working to maximum effect to nurture the emergence and maintenance of free speech. Many areas for potential new thinking emerged from the conversations between Forum participants, and the exploration continues into the details of how to work in new ways.
Many thanks to our engaged and knowledgeable participants.