I read in the Guardian that a potential asset swap between Vodofone and Liberty Global, the owners of Virgin Media, has been shelved. Their failure to agree has caused Vodofone’s share price to fall although some kind of merger is still on the cards. This item of news appears in the business pages, a section of the paper I usually skip; but the article is accompanied by a picture of Usain Bolt who never fails to catch the eye. It comes from the Virgin Media advertisements in which he appears wearing football kit and twirling a ball on his finger. Some of the television commercials feature walk-on parts for Richard Branson from which it seemed reasonable to assume that he still owned the company. Now I discover that it has been bought by a multinational.
Does this matter? After all, what they are getting for their money has always been more important to consumers than the technicality of who owns the brand. Takeovers and mergers are defended as a sign of the market rationalising production and supply. So what if the new proprietors of Virgin Media bought rights to the original merchandising – and Branson’s continued endorsement? They are ensuring access to customer loyalty and offering a better service in return.
This kind of argument is beloved of business schools, stock exchanges and management consultants. But I speak as someone who likes his money to follow his conscience. My pound is red, green and grey, a colour scheme ill-served by the present dispensation – likewise democracy, the environment and other absentees from the bottom line.
Globalisation, the predominance of finance capital and the latest surge towards concentration of ownership have created a layer of corporate reality more removed from the everyday experience, let alone control, of ordinary people than ever before. I might disapprove of a company’s activities – selling formula milk to African mothers, for example – but if its involvement with other products is concealed how can I exercise my right to boycott its goods? What guarantee do I have that the profits earned on my purchases are not finding their way through the labyrinth of corporate ownership to a mogul who finances climate change denial, for example, or backs a political party I disagree with? Perhaps, coming back to Virgin Media, I have bought into the mystique of Richard Branson as a free-wheeling Everyman who stands up for the little guy against the business establishment and believe that buying my internet connection or TV channels from him is a vote for home-grown talent and the spirit of free enterprise, when in reality he has sold out to a vast holding company whose controlling interest seems to be American.
Of course there is usually something in small print on the contract or tin. And it is possible to research online although in my experience only Wikipedia provides an objective (but not necessarily accurate) account of a company’s background and structure. But all of this is hard work: who has the time? It is far easier not to worry; to gratify what the adverts say are my needs and desires without reference to where the money is going; to get the best deal and treat the consequences as something beyond anyone’s control, like the weather or fate. Why bother about accountability when you can have a few pounds off your wifi connection? Let the planet go hang: I can watch X Factor on my phone.