What a week to be a Canadian and a Torontonian, particularly if you’re someone who’s interested in both politics and technology. The question that keeps ringing through my mind is what’s the sadder story to follow: the deepening Crackgate that Toronto mayor Rob Ford finds himself in or the prolonged and continual implosion of the country’s biggest technology company, BlackBerry. It turns out they have a lot in common.
In case you missed it, Ford this week confessed to having smoked crack “about a year ago,” with the best part being that he couldn’t remember doing it because it was “probably in one of my drunken stupors.” At this point, I’m not sure what’s worse for a public official: admitting to crack or to routinely being uncontrollably drunk. BlackBerry, meanwhile, also made headlines by saying that its previously announced takeover bid by Fairfax Financial had fallen through and that short-lived chief executive Thorsten Heins was out.
The two situations are obviously very different, but they do bear several resemblances:
The denials: Ford vehemently sort-of denied using crack several times, starting with the infamous press conference statement back in May: “I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine. As for a video, I cannot comment on a video that I have never seen or does not exist. It is most unfortunate, very unfortunate, that my colleagues and the great people of this city have been exposed to the fact that I have been judged by the media without any evidence.” Even up until a few days before his eventual admission, he was denying and evading questions about crack.
BlackBerry’s denials go back much further, with a good number of them coming around the iPhone’s launch in 2007. The company immediately took the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats approach, which is code for anyone denying the arrival of a serious competitor. Founder Mike Lazaridis summed it up nicely in 2008: “I think what happened was the amount of marketing and the attention (Apple) generated in the market – the customers are now coming to the store and saying I didn’t know you could do all that with a phone. And when they get there they realize there’s a selection – there’s not just one device. And so what it’s actually done is increased our sales.”
More recently, in an interview last summer, Heins denied the obvious: “This company is not ignoring the world out there, nor is it in a death spiral.” Uh huh.
The promises: Both Ford and BlackBerry have offered up some amazingly empty promises that accomplished little, other than to perhaps telegraph how much further trouble lays ahead. On Sunday, Ford took to the radio to admit his imperfections and past stupidities, like the drunken stupors he got into at the Taste of the Danforth and at City Hall on St. Patrick’s Day. “I shouldn’t have got hammered down at the Danforth. If you are going to have a couple drinks, you stay at home. You don’t make a public spectacle of yourself… It got a little out of control. I can’t change the past. I can assure people, hopefully it won’t happen again. I can make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
BlackBerry’s promises – especially the broken ones – are too numerous to list, with the company failing to deliver on the little things like getting a BBM app out for Android and iOS on time to updating the PlayBook to BB10, to the big picture stuff like, you know, having actual phones to sell. How many times was BB10 delayed? Perhaps the most empty promise was last year’s puffery setting up the launch of BB10, which the company touted as the “next-generation mobile platform that will change everything.”
More recently, the company issued a public letter that promised a return to form, and that everything would soon be fine. “You can continue to count on BlackBerry,” the letter promised. The underlying and unspoken addendum was, of course, “…until you get fed up with us, as people are doing by the boatload.”
The worsening: Perhaps the biggest similarity between Ford and BlackBerry is that just when you think things can’t get worse for either, they inevitably do. Again, with BlackBerry it’s the little things – how do you mess up a simple app launch? – and the big stuff, such as securing a buyer for the company. The longer it goes, the stinkier the company gets and the less interest it will attract. With Ford, well, it’s pretty clear by now that he’s built up a web of lies that seems to stretch back decades. How far it continues to unravel is anyone’s guess.
The big difference between the two dramas, at least for me, is that one is immensely entertaining while the other is just stretching on ad nauseum, like a Peter Jackson movie. While Ford has certainly brought shame and ridicule upon Toronto and therefore Canada, there is some humour to be found in the situation. I get up every morning wondering what kind of new buffoonery the day will bring. Tuesday’s admission was great since it delivered up a tailor-made internet meme in the form of “drunken stupor” – the Twitter hashtag detailing all the ridiculous things people had done while extremely drunk made for thoroughly entertaining reading. Late-night comedians such as Jon Stewart, meanwhile, are rightfully finding gold in all of this.
Yes, the Ford drama is embarrassing and may ultimately end in tragedy, but I kind of want it to keep going, at least for a little while. Just as the court jester was the only person allowed to speak truth to the king in medieval times, so too are Ford’s kooky exploits a sort of dark subversion that’s exposing so many things that are wrong with our city. How did such a clown come to power and, more importantly, how does he still have it? There is surely a lack of checks and balances when an admitted crack user is allowed to continue on as mayor. The longer this goes, the more we learn about the inadequacies of our systems and possibly even with ourselves.
On the other hand, it’s hard to generate any interest in watching the BlackBerry saga continue. It’s been going on far too long and the ending – where the company is split up and sold for parts – has been inevitable for some time now. There were some amusements along the way – who can forget the drunken executives who were locked down on a plane and then chewed through their restraints – but the comedy long ago turned to tragedy. The credits on this one need to roll, and the sooner the better.