Steve Jobs’ sickness is none of our business
Just because someone is in the public eye, that doesn’t mean we get to know everything about their private lives.
It was announced this week that Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple, is to take a leave of absence due to ill-health. Apple has said nothing about the nature of Jobs’ illness, nor how long it expects him to be absent for. And for some commentators, this failure to disclose everything is simply unacceptable.
Bruce Weinstein, Business Week’s ethics columnist, declared: ‘As chief executive of a publicly traded company, Steve Jobs has a role-specific duty to inform stakeholders of anything likely to affect how he runs the organisation. This includes his current medical condition and prognosis, his treatment options, and how well he is doing as this ordeal progresses.’ Ben Heineman, writing in the Atlantic, agreed: ‘In 2009, Jobs took an unexplained leave of absence for medical reasons and returned a number of months later with a liver transplant. His medical condition should have been disclosed then. And it should be disclosed now.’
As a matter of fact, Jobs has no such duty. As the Wall Street Journal explained, the legal situation regarding how much must be disclosed leaves a lot to a company’s discretion. Nothing needs to be revealed at all ‘unless the illness hampers the executive’s ability to work. Then it would be considered “material information” which must be disclosed under the Securities and Exchange Commission’s rules. Even then, companies don’t have to explain what is wrong.’
Apple is different from most companies in that many of its regular customers have actually heard of the boss. Indeed, given the utterly fawning attitude towards every new product Apple produces, there is a veritable Cult of Steve among many members of the technorati. As Weinstein gushes: ‘Consumers buy an iPhone, iPad, or MacBook (like the one I’m writing this article on) largely because they know and trust Steve Jobs’ commitment to excellence. This dedication should apply not only to making great gadgets, but also to treating with respect the people who buy and invest in these technological marvels.’
Actually, Apple fanboys aside, I doubt that most consumers choose the company’s products because of Steve Jobs. They like them because they are well-designed, if rather pricey, fashionable and very intuitive to use: in other words, they’re ‘cool’. Apple’s success isn’t just down to Jobs: the company has a very good chief designer, Jonathan Ive, and the rest of the organisation is well run so that those cutting-edge designs are turned into good, reliable products that reach the market ahead of the crowd. While Apple has just announced a six-billion dollar profit, its future challenges are less to do with Job’s health and much the same as any other market leader’s: the fact that competitors are catching up in making similarly ‘cool’ products.
But the demand for revelation from Jobs should not be seen as simply concerned shareholders seeking clarification. There is a wider social trend of suspicion towards privacy. For example, when it was revealed in 2009 that golfer Tiger Woods had been cheating on his wife, the story exploded way beyond the normal level of celeb gossip. As Brendan O’Neill noted at the time, ‘the “kiss and tell” element isn’t the worst of it. Alongside the predictable tabloid sweep for “facts”, for the “real story” of sexual indiscretions, there has also been a witch-hunting of Tiger Woods by a motley crew of broadsheet commentators, experts and therapists. They’ve leapt, vampire-like, for Tiger’s jugular, desperately excited by the thought of forcing this famously private individual to embrace the contemporary cult of emotional sluttishness’.
How long before we get demands for Jobs to bare all on TV? Sounds like just the ticket for former tabloid-editor-turned-talent-show-judge Piers Morgan and his new show on CNN. If anyone can get the publicly stoic Jobs to blub on primetime about his illness, the creepy Morgan can.
Nor is the demand for revelation limited to celebrity. If another cult-inspiring individual, Julian Assange of Wikileaks, had his way then no private discussion would be too trivial or too sensitive to be spared the glare of public scrutiny. No personal detail can be spared, it seems, in the ‘public interest’.
There will be times when it is important to expose things which famous people regard as personal and embarrassing because those things have a wider significance to society, and the press must be free to do that. The attempt by various celebrities to create a legalistic right to privacy through the English courts is bad news for free expression. But that does not mean that discretion cannot be applied, too.
If Jobs was concealing the fact that he was playing no part in running Apple, that would be a story of some significance because it might distort investment decisions. That’s why it was right for him to make a formal announcement that he was stepping back from day-to-day control of Apple. But we do not need to know the intimate details of his illness, prognosis or treatment. Some things should remain private.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
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