Paramount Interest

By David Paxton

“We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theatergoers,”

Employers have responsibilities. But then so do all of us as members of society. What happens when these clash? What interest is in fact, paramount?

So Sony have decided not to put out their film. It is a comedy, it doesn’t seem to be high-brow, of large social import or making a vital political statement. And yet none of that is relevant. The moment Sony were threatened it became important beyond its content.

Upon reading their press release I was instantly struck by the similarity with the Danish cartoons incident of 2005. Those cartoons may well have been things that most news organisations would not wish to publish, however the moment people threatened and indeed proceeded to kill over them, any news organisation worth its name had an obligation to publish. Firstly because it is news, but secondly and I suggest more importantly, as an act of defiance to the threat, of solidarity with the threatened and to ensure that the most ugly of precedents is not set. However, almost no organisations published the cartoons. And the reason most commonly given was that they had a duty, a paramount interest if you will, to the safety of their staff.

When a member of your family is kidnapped, their safe return is of paramount interest to you. Who could make the case to you that the wider picture, namely future kidnap victims, is in fact more important and expect to be agreed with?

Although paying a ransom is not technically illegal in America, to do so to a known terrorist group will leave you open to prosecution for terrorist funding and the Federal government have used this fact to prevent previous attempts at payments. Despite no law preventing the UK and US governments themselves paying, they choose as a matter of policy not to. The US and the UK do not negotiate with kidnappers and terrorists. The last time a group in the UK worked without that assumption was 1980 at Princess Gate. The whole world saw how that ended and it seems plenty of people took note. To reward the behaviour is to encourage it. This is why this doctrine is in place, to prevent repeats.  But once adopted that policy takes backbone, stoicism to maintain. A policy others, the French or Italian governments for example, seem far less well equipped to uphold.

But with a family and a kidnap, their lack of wider moral awareness is easily and instantly accepted. Can we really grant businesses the same latitude? Or conversely, are we able to expect them to take a longer term view like our governments? In corporate culture people have clear roles and responsibilities. They are defined, they come with accompanying flow-charts and diagrams, they are signed for and lawyers are circling ready to jump on any lapses come tribunal time. Nowhere in Sony’s corporate policies will it speak of a moral obligation to uphold the intangibles of the culture of freedom of speech, to not reward the bullying behaviour of autocrats, and certainly not to accept, on behalf of their employees, mortal danger for these reasons.

Their legal responsibilities have been met but surely not their moral ones. They can only be sued for the former however. This is the world of cover-your-arse, of just following orders, of defining the interest most beneficial to themselves in isolation and calling it ‘paramount’.

Sony caved first, they told the cinema chains which they have deals with, that it was ok not to show it as previously agreed. Then “Regal Cinemas, AMC Entertainment and Cinemark Theatres – the top three theatre chains in North America – subsequently announced they were postponing screenings, and Canada’s biggest theatre firms also pulled out, leaving Sony seemingly no choice but to postpone the film.”

If indeed they were thus threatened I would suggest that releasing details of that threat, perhaps a warning with the ticket purchase,  and then allowing cinema goers to choose to take the risk would be an adequate fulfillment of the duty. It would allow the public to demonstrate what they think of threats from bullies. This is not going to happen.

This incident has occurred in the midst of the leak from Sony of a multitude of corporate information following a hack. Unfortunately it may well be that issues around this leak are for Sony the interest most paramount rather than the apparent threat to safety in cinemas. One can only speculate as to whether the film would have been pulled due to a threat without this massive leak. The thing is, now they have pulled the film it is surely only a matter of time before another controversial film garners a threat. Then we will of course find out. But would that make this decision better or worse?

Let us assume the threat to cinema goers is the real reason. If so Sony must release the film for free as soon as possible. That way at least they will both serve their ‘paramount interest’ as they state it, and the actual paramount interest as I do.