Our honour at stake

‘It might not be the “glitziest” list we had had in recent years, but it was about rewarding those who worked and served at the sharp end – people who had really changed things, or who had given outstanding service to others in difficult situations,’ briefed the prime minister’s official spokesman.

Less commented upon was the fact that the list was largely an accountant-free roll-call too. Indeed the corporate world was notable for its absence this time around.

Given the year that business has had, though, it was no real surprise.

From Enron to Worldcom, Equitable Life to Marconi, it is not a year that many in the corporate world (on both sides of the Atlantic) will look back upon with a great deal of fondness.

That message wasn’t confined to Number 10 either. Look at the approach taken by Time Magazine, for instance, when it sought to fill its Person of the Year slot last month. Instead of an individual, it chose three people for the coveted cover shot: Sherron Watkins of Enron, Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom and Coleen Rowley of the FBI.

Although their jobs were very different, they all performed the same role, that of whistle-blower.

Time’s reasoning was simple, if perhaps a little too ‘mom and pop’ for European sensibilities. ‘They took huge professional and personal risks to blow the whistle on what went wrong at WorldCom, Enron and the FBI,’ the magazine reasoned.

‘And in so doing helped remind us what American courage and American values are all about.’

It might sound obvious but this year has to be different to last. It’s good to see the important role performed by whistleblowers recognised, but more needs to be done to eliminate the sort of wrongdoing that requires whistles to be blown.

Accountants, perhaps more so than other corporates given the experience of Andersen, face an uphill struggle to restore their reputation in this regard.

The new year’s honours list may not have been a calculated snub – individuals from business, science and technology accounted for 18% of awards, after all. But the relative lack of corporate representation should serve as a reminder to accountants and other businesspeople of the work that they need to do to win back the public trust.

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