Most accounts of the fallout from the News of the World saga have tended to present it as a sordid episode involving three sets of players: unscrupulous journalists prepared to go to any lengths to obtain information about people in the public eye, including victims of crime and their families; greedy police officers willing to sacrifice their personal integrity, and damage the reputation of their colleagues, by passing on information in return for payment; and gutless politicians who, over many years, lacked the courage to resist the blandishments (or the blackmail) of powerful media manipulators.
Predictably, the politicians are now trying to play down their record of cosying-up to the Murdoch empire by claiming some credit for the enquiries that have been set in train. An image of ferrets in a sack, nipping each other in delicate places, comes to mind. It will be interesting to see if the resignations of Rebekah Brooks and Sir Paul Stephenson are sufficient to take the heat off the Murdochs and the prime minister.
What has been largely missing from the coverage is any sense of the way in which this episode might have much wider significance, as a symptom of corrosive trends within society as a whole. News International can be seen as the toxic end of a spectrum that extends to many other spheres of operation.
Enquiries into the banking crisis produced evidence that exposed dubious practices at the highest levels of the financial world. Within the city of London, stories of 'insider trading' surface from time to time and some experts conclude that it will never be possible to stamp it out completely, given the enclosed culture of that world. In international business conducted by British companies, it has been shown to be commonplace to offer 'arrangement' fees (in other words, bribes) to middle men who can help to secure contracts. The defence is that this is standard practice and failing to adopt it will only mean that the contracts will go elsewhere.
Growing public awareness of these examples of dodgy dealings in high places has several effects. It reduces respect for, and trust in, those who occupy leadership roles, thereby damaging the fabric of society. It also encourages the view that if this is what those at the top get up to, there is no reason why ordinary folk shouldn't follow suit – by, for example, falsifying tax returns, making illegitimate benefit claims, or contributing to the black economy.
Gradually the ethical framework on which a decent society depends is weakened and a 'Del boy' mentality becomes the norm. This is reinforced by the perception that the gap between the rich and the poor has reached a level which signifies the abandonment of fairness as a social principle. The right-wing American politician, Mike Huckabee – hardly a radical voice – was recently quoted (in Prospect magazine) as saying that: 'A generation ago a CEO was paid 40 times what a worker was paid. Now it’s 700 times'. He went on to criticise 'corporate boards who cross-pollinate with each other', ensuring that each party to the arrangement comes away with a nice little earner, as well as strengthening their network connections. There is no reason to think the situation is any different in Britain.
Those institutions which might in the past have served as a bulwark against these trends have gradually lost credibility. The churches, instead of concentrating their attention on the big issues which are re-shaping the social climate in damaging ways, prefer to devote their energies to internal doctrinal disputes which, to outsiders, seem more to do with power than with grace. Within the legal profession, while there are still those who are motivated by some conception of justice, there are others who are prepared to sell their skills to the highest bidder, with little regard to the ethical compromises that might entail.
Universities too seem to have lost their way, in some cases apparently more interested in developing 'spin-off' deals with private companies than with encouraging all forms of intellectual endeavour. An interesting line of enquiry for a principled investigative journalist (assuming there are any left) would be to look at changing patterns in the award of honorary degrees: 'celebrities' and 'benefactors' now seem to feature more often than they did in the past. Again, several commentators have noted revealing shifts in the kind of people who are appointed to senior university posts: commitment to 'corporate' values has become more important than the disinterested pursuit of truth. Writing in Times Higher Education last year, Clive Bloom remarked that 'there is more than one well-dressed spiv in vice-chancellor's robes backed by a governing board of golf-playing Arthur Daleys'.
This analysis suggests that we have, in fact, a fairly shabby society. Attempts to reassure us that more robust 'regulatory mechanisms' will be put in place, and that stricter 'professional standards' will be imposed, are less than convincing. Recent history indicates that, after a short time, any 'tightening-up' will soon prove ineffective. In any case, the very fact that such mechanisms are considered necessary is itself evidence that little reliance can be placed on any instinctive sense of rightness by many people holding positions of responsibility. Quite simply, the moral compass of society is no longer functioning properly.
There is, however, one small gleam of light amidst the prevailing gloom. The Murdoch episode, despite its depressing insight into the way major institutions operate, has shown the potential of popular revolt: one of the reasons MPs finally took a stand, apart from sheer self-interest, was that they were bombarded with thousands of messages from ordinary folk wishing to express their revulsion at what had happened. People power – motivated by a conviction that the institutions could not be trusted to reform themselves – has helped to shape events. There is a lesson here for all of us in mobilising forces for the future.
Walter Humes is visiting professor of education at Stirling University
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