Gambling with the public sphere: accounting's contribution to debate on social issues
This paper explores the contribution of accounts, especially counter-accounts, to the debate on social issues in the public sphere. We examine a social activist organisation's challenge to a major corporation to acknowledge the issue of problem gambling and change its poker machine operations. While the professionally sanctioned corporate financial statements and corporate responsibility reports failed to contribute relevant information for an informed public debate, the activist organisation sponsored and produced both narrative and calculative counter-accounts which contributed to public debate. We initially anchor our approach in Habermas to explore dialogic accounts and democratic accountability at the deliberative-agonistic divide. Our contextualised, theorised narrative identifies the accounts and counter-accounts provided by the protagonists. Practically, the paper demonstrates the power of counter-accounts to reinvigorate debate in the public sphere, irrespective of whether it stimulates a change in corporate behaviour. We therefore contend that social accounting should be empirically examined and contextually interpreted. The case brings into focus the deliberative-agonistic divide inherent in democratic systems and recognised in the social accounting literature, and suggests that ideological differences make it difficult for corporate and activist protagonists to co-exist as friendly enemies. This challenges Habermas conception of a public sphere as naively idealistic, since it neglects contemporary ideological, political and power differentials, but proposes a space in which debate about accounting's role in social issues can be agonistically debated. It leads us to call for more theoretically informed, contextualised case studies to examine the potential of accounting to enable public debate on social issues.