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Why the private sector shouldn’t do public service: or why these people behave like scum, even if they didn’t start out like that

Three stories in The Guardian over the last week which started me thinking about the inherent, and serious, danger of using the private sector to run organisations which are supposed to be for the public good. My disgust started with a story about Adam Afriyie, who has emerged as a possible conservative leadership contender (no, I don’t know what that’s about either, but obviously someone has a Cunning Plan): Adam Afriyie profile: before any plot, there was always a word farm by Robert Booth The Guardian, Thursday 31 January (

“Afriyie, the MP for Windsor, who was forced to deny any ambition to unseat the PM, has made a multimillion-pound fortune from businesses that include an operation employing hundreds of young writers to churn out thousands of news stories a day about anything from car roof racks to the best way to cook Christmas lunch.
Afriyie owns businesses that include Adfero which bills itself as “the UK’s leading dedicated online news provider”. It produces thousands of short articles for corporate clients who need fresh content on their websites featuring popular keywords in the daily battle to appear near the top of Google’s search rankings.
[…]  Adfero staff are asked to produce around 30 articles per day, each of around 200 words – a rate of one every 15 minutes in an eight-hour shift. The stories – many written from press releases harvested systematically – are then sold to clients at a price of around £18 per time to clients.
Adfero is part of the burgeoning industry of “search engine optimisation” and to make sure Google puts an organisation’s website high up its list of search results whenever an internet user inputs search terms that relate to that organisation’s trade. So by writing stories about a film star such as Jennifer Lopez and posting them on a film rental website, when a movie fan does a Google search for Jennifer Lopez, there is a higher likelihood of the company’s site appearing in the search.”

I can’t imagine anything more vacuous, meretricious, and wasteful (and deceitful to those of us who [unwisely] trust Google’s algorithms to find us good quality content) – but you can make a multi-million pound business* out of that.

Then I found: The Google adverts helping to rip-off consumers Patrick Collinson The Guardian, Saturday 2 February 2013 (

“There are a bunch of slimy toerags who create websites that trick people into paying £1.50 a minute to ring free services such as calling NHS Direct and DWP benefit helplines, or lure them into paying £10 for a European health insurance card when they’re free, or charge £50 for what should be an £8 US visa. Now unsuspecting visitors to London are being targeted with sites that mislead drivers into paying 50% more than they should for the congestion charge.”

Slimy toerags is mild – but if there’s money to be made…..

….And finally, I remembered from the week before: Fake reviews plague consumer websites: Consumer website reviews should give you the truth about goods and services – unless they’ve been written to order Mike Deri Smith The Guardian, Saturday 26 January 2013 (

“Websites such as Trustpilot claim to have millions of “authentic reviews from actual customers” to help shoppers buy online with confidence. But a Guardian Money investigation has uncovered fake reviewing on an almost industrial scale, with companies paying offshore contractors to post numerous glowing accounts of their activities, yet maintaining they are from unbiased consumers.

Many of the fake reviews uncovered by Money were written by computer science specialists in countries such as Bangladesh, India and Indonesia, who, for a relatively low fee, will write and send false reviews using scores of aliases and fake addresses. Many offer their services to western companies on, which promotes itself as an international website on which you can “outsource anything you can think of”. Companies simply post their requirements and wait for freelancers to start bidding for the work.

Guardian Money tracked down fake reviews promoting WAE+ (formerly known as We Are Electricals), which last year was the most complained about company to our consumer champions’ Bachelor&Brignall consumer champions column.”

OK, you shouldn’t believe everything you read in The Guardian, but you just know this stuff is true, because it’s absolutely in character: the character of the private sector.

The point of private enterprise is to make profit for the owners. There is no other objective, and from its point of view there should be no restrictions on how to do that, as long as it’s legally allowed (thank goodness there are some legal restrictions, which is why – for any libertarian US  readers – yes, we really do need a democratic government and a set of laws). Anything else can go and get stuffed. I was first made aware of this thirty-odd years ago when I read The Famine Business (1977)**, a book by Colin Tudge, the excellent science writer about all kinds of things, where he pointed out that the business of food companies was not to make food, but to make money – and once you realise that, a lot of unfairness and suffering in the world starts to make sense.
OK, there can be useful side-effects. Maybe the public sector wouldn’t have done what Apple did (though it might not have overcharged, restricted use of its technology, and introduced infuriating DRM, either), but producing all that good stuff isn’t really the point for Apple. If they had brilliant products which didn’t produce fat profits, they’d ditch them. On the other hand, if there are malevolent products which make good profits, then it’s the entirely consistent business of the private sector to promote them. It isn’t an aberration that there’s one mis-selling scandal after another: mis-selling is what they do. It’s what they should do, if mis-selling produces more profit than ethical selling.
On the other hand, the business of the public sector is to benefit the public. There will be all kinds of failures, wrong decisions, self-serving employees, bureaucratic befuddlement – but in the end, what people are trying to do (and what they’re judged by) is to do something useful. The NHS is supposed to promote health and provide medical care; the fire service is supposed to prevent fire, and save lives and property, the education system is supposed to help people understand the world and get the skills to cope with life and work (and, yes, to filter to deserving classes from the dross, but if we really wanted, we could change that aim). They won’t succeed, but at least they’re trying do the right thing, and there will be attempts at correction.
As I write this, I realise that this is so stupidly obvious that I shouldn’t be wasting your time expecting you to read it – or my time writing it, maybe – but it doesn’t seem to be something that’s realised by the people who are in the business of making life worse for almost everyone (the coalition government). Actually, that’s probably wrong, because they’re acting in the interests of people who stand to profit enormously from things like the privatisation of health care, and they know that very well. But why do we let ourselves be fooled?

So – someone can get enormously, unnecessarily, rich, by employing people to write meaningless articles about useless topics in order to fool people about which websites are most useful or relevant to their interests. WTF.

*Unlike me, who…..

** but don’t buy it from Amazon, unless you’re citizen of Luxemburg. Better Books World have two secondhand copies in stock (on 3 February 2013):


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