Skyful of Lies and Black Swans: Who controls shifting information power in crises?

Nik Gowing, International Broadcaster

Co-presented with the China Studies Centre and Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney

The public information space has been turned on its head. But few at the highest levels of power are willing to realise that its new capacity to disrupt threatens their reputation or brand. There is a reluctance to learn from the destabilising experiences of others in multiple fields and locations.

This presentation and discussion focus on the new executive fragilities and policy implications for government ministers, civil servants, defence and security agencies plus corporate institutions and NGO’s from the new matrix of real-time information flows and transparency created especially by the explosion of social media. The new digital connectivity and IT realities are disruptive game changers. They challenge mercilessly the inadequacy of the structures of power to respond both with effective impact and in a timely way. As vulnerabilities increase, mindsets and systemic behaviour lag behind these new realities.

After BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster, the Japan earthquake catastrophe and nuclear disaster, terror attacks and natural disasters, plus Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Ukraine and multiple concerns about the stability of other regimes, Nik Gowing, international broadcaster, presents an overview and update on the implications for power of his peer-reviewed Skyful of Lies analysis. It confirms how in moments of major, unexpected crisis the institutions of power - whether political, governmental or corporate - face a new, acute vulnerability of both their influence and effectiveness, with their legitimacy challenged.

The professional price paid by senior corporate executives, government ministers and senior commanders over operational failings in a major crisis highlights the new professional vulnerability. In no more than a few hours brands and reputation can be damaged and executive careers threatened or destroyed. This has been reconfirmed by the dramatic impact of corporate disasters for TEPCO in Japan or BP after the Gulf of Mexico explosion, plus the ongoing public pro-reform pressures in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, China and Burma along with protests exemplified by the anti-corruption street mobilisation by Anna Hazare in India, the internet campaign in the US that swiftly halted the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), or the G20 and Student Fees violence in London.

The question to be posed is : how prepared are you? How well do you understand the relentless impact on your power of both social media and the new, fast changing public information space?

The professional implications are vital leadership issues. Governments, public servants or security officials plus commanders and corporate executives must understand how to embrace effectively the new realities of today's media and public information space. It is far broader and more multi-dimensional, than the vast majority are prepared to realise, let alone concede. Yet it challenges all the conventional assumptions about the nature of power.

Nik Gowing

Nik Gowing is an international broadcaster and until recently was the main presenter at BBC’s international 24-hour news channel BBC World News, a position he had held since 1996. He has presented The Hub with Nik Gowing, BBC World Debates, Dateline London, plus location coverage of major global stories. For 18 years he worked at ITN where he was bureau chief in Rome and Warsaw, and Diplomatic Editor for Channel Four News (1988-1996). He has been a member of the councils of Chatham House (1998–2004), the Royal United Services Institute (2005–present), and the Overseas Development Institute (2007-2014), the board of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy including vice chair (1996-2005), and the advisory council at Wilton Park (1998-2012).

In 1994 he was a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center in the J. F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Nik has extensive reporting experience over three decades in diplomacy, defence and international security. He also has a much sought-after analytical expertise on the failures to manage information in the new transparent environments of conflicts, crises, emergencies and times of tension. His peer-reviewed study at Oxford University is “Skyful of Lies and Black Swans”. It predicts and identifies the new vulnerability, fragility and brittleness of institutional power in the new all-pervasive public information space.

He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Exeter University in 2012 for both his cutting edge study and distinguished career in international journalism. He has just been appointed a Visiting Professor at Kings College, London.