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Jana Macfarlane Horn on Why We Don’t Recognize Corporate Crime as Crime

Jana Macfarlane Horn asks a fundamental question – why don’t we recognize corporate crime as crime?

Jana Macfarlane Horn

“Six people died during a tornado in an Amazon warehouse on 10th December 2021 in Edwardsville, Illinois,” Macfarlane Horn writes in a recent article titled – Amazon: When a Crime is Not a Crime. “The media reported – “Deadly tornadoes, storms strike US, roof collapse at Amazon” and “Six dead, no hope of more survivors after tornadoes destroy Amazon warehouse” rather than ‘Amazon forces employees to work during extreme weather conditions, causing six deaths for their lack of storm shelters in place,’” 

“Put more simply: why is corporate crime not a crime?” she asks.

Macfarlane Horn is currently working on her PhD in criminology at the Open University in the United Kingdom.

“The failure to consider corporate crime as crime is rooted in its neglect within criminology and subsequently reflected in public perceptions which are communicated through media,” Horn writes. “Amazon’s (in)actions can be situated under the umbrella of corporate crime. Corporate crimes are actions and omissions perpetrated by corporations that are punishable under criminal, civil, regulatory, and administrative laws.” 

Macfarlane Horn wants to turn her PhD thesis into a true crime book on corporate crime.

How did you become interested in criminology, and then how did you become interested in corporate crime?

“I switched from studying languages to criminology because I’ve always been interested in true crime,” Horn told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “And when I started watching the true crime documentaries and listening to the podcasts, I just became fascinated.”

“So I thought, you know what, criminology sounds very intriguing, and it might be quite a justice-making course of study. And then afterwards, one of the first lectures I attended was about white collar and corporate crime, and I just thought that was probably the biggest injustice in the world. I would like to say that I’m quite good at studying and I thought maybe I can make a difference. So I started researching corporate crime more. And currently with my PhD thesis, I’m hoping to get out a few publications as well and make corporate crime a bit more mainstream.”

What is your thesis about?

“My thesis is about the portrayal of three corporate crime cases in podcasts and documentaries. I’m particularly interested in whether podcasts and documentaries have the ability to be a little bit more critical and skeptical of corporate crimes. I’ve done corporate crime research in the media and looked at newspapers like the Guardian in the UK.”

“The results of my research were quite surprising. I thought maybe podcasts, which tend to be more independent and without corporate oversight, might be able to portray corporate crimes in a bit more nuanced way.”

Isn’t it the case that journalists are being careful in not calling these cases criminal when in fact there is no criminal prosecution?

“Yes and no. Within criminology if something isn’t prosecuted but could be, should we call it a crime or should we not? That’s a big ongoing theoretical debate within criminology. The media not calling out companies for being criminal is more based on the threat from the corporations to sue them for defamation and for slander.” 

I was speaking to a criminology student from Kansas State last weekend. And I asked him whether he had ever studied corporate crime. He said there was a course in white-collar crime within the criminology department, but he had no plans on taking it. 

Is it your sense that among criminology students, corporate crime is not a major source of study?

“Absolutely. It’s funny you mentioned that because I have just returned from a conference in the UK. It was the annual conference of the British Society of Criminology.  It was my first time at the conference and I thought – I will go and present a poster on corporate crime. I was looking at the program and saw that there was only one talk about corporate crime. The rest of them were more focused on prisons, policing – mostly those two actually and hate crime as well.” 

“That was my experience. As a student and from the criminology programs that I know of, corporate crime is very much neglected and marginalized. Maybe people just don’t find it that interesting. But yes, that’s also my experience within academia.” 

“And I think there’s only one particular master’s degree you can do that is specialized in corporate crime. But usually corporate crime courses are elective courses. In the whole of academia, there is not much attention being paid to corporate crime. To be fair, I’m just thinking about the academics I know within the UK that study corporate crime, and I could probably count them on my two hands.”

What are you finding in writing your PhD on how podcasters and documentarians treat corporate crime differently from the mainstream media?

“Documentary filmmakers are a bit more bound to corporations, and are a bit more bound to corporate funding. Even if it’s an independent documentary filmmaker, they will have to promote their documentary somehow. A network like ABC or NBC will hire a documentarian and do a documentary on a particular case.” 

“That’s a bit different from podcasts, because with podcasts, it might be just two independent parties, non journalists discussing a case. I found a podcast, for example, on fast fashion and then they were discussing the Rana Plaza disaster. And so that’s just two people that have done their own research discussing the case and they go in a little bit more depth and not sticking to the stereotypes of –  this was an issue or a mistake or problem. Instead of – this was a disaster or a crime or negligence.” 

“Podcasts have more of an ability to portray the complexity of corporate crime cases because you’re given essentially anywhere from half an hour to an hour to discuss one case in a lot of depth. That’s what I’ve been finding with my initial research.”

I’ve spoken with a number of young students who studied corporate crime in school, but it’s rare and it’s few and far between. Why is that the case?

“From my discussions with my friends, all university educated, it’s that people just don’t find it very interesting. They think it is an issue that we should probably care about more because it’s also at the heart of prisons, because you’ve got more and more corporations controlling prisons. And that’s a whole other topic.”

“I just find that people cannot wrap their head around it. And I also find that there’s a general lack of awareness when it comes to all the myths and the complexities of corporate crime. So, with some of my friends, if I tell them some of the facts of the cases, they cannot understand how this has been allowed to happen. So I think it’s a combination of not too much interest because there are more interesting things to study such as serial murder. That’s very, very mainstream, true crime. It also indicates a lack of awareness, which I’m really hoping to change with my research, making it a little bit more mainstream.”

How do you hope to move to break out of academia and make it more mainstream?

“I was actually contemplating making my own podcast about corporate crime focusing on true crime. But I don’t want it to be the same run of the mill true crime podcast, with each episode discussing a different case. I want to bridge the academic knowledge and the practical knowledge.” 

“I’ve been hired by the Open University to record a podcast episode, which I’m doing this week, and that’s going to be about corporate crime. But more than that, I’m just interested in starting my own thing. If it does take off and if it is interesting enough, I’m really hoping that more people are going to be at least aware that corporate crime is an issue that we should care about, and it should be at the heart of social justice movements in the 21st century.”

One of the things that caught my eye about your work is that you actually use the term corporate crime when many academics who focus on the field use the term white collar crime. White collar crime seems to be a political term that’s preferred by the mainstream corporate media because it can mean people in positions of trust, committing crimes against the corporation. Corporate crime is a more politically hot wired term where you’re actually pointing the finger at the most powerful institution in society. 

What brought you to use corporate crime instead of white collar crime?

“This might reflect a difference between the US and the UK. I don’t even think white collar crime is used that much in the UK. Corporate crime would be a term that’s used a little bit more. We do have a law called the Corporate Homicide and Corporate Manslaughter Act of 2007. With that law, we are calling out the corporations rather than the individuals.”

“The term white collar crime is more about individual wrongdoing,  scapegoating the individuals that might have been involved.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Jana Macfarlane Horn, see 36 Corporate Crime Reporter 29(12), July 18, 2022, print edition only.] 

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