Bad news is supposed to come in threes. And as the fallout continues from the phone hacking scandal, many are now looking at the links to the two other ‘crises’ of recent years – banking and MP’s expenses.
Is it just coincidence? The hypothesis that usually emerges at times of national scandal is that there is a moral malaise. The tendency is to look back wistfully to a mythical bygone era – located sometime before the 1960s – when everyone was honourable, had an ethic of public service and a lot more integrity.
Such pat analysis does little justice to historical reality. There were plenty of scandals before the Beatles and free love. And for centuries the disabled, the poor, homosexuals, women, ethnic minorities, had an inferior status which few even questioned – perhaps the biggest scandal of all.
But bypassing the cul-de-sac of declining ethical standards, there is merit in asking what particular values have been at work beneath the recent trio of trouble and trauma.
One immediate observation is that in each case, size mattered. The banks were too big to fail. News Corporation is a global media empire employing tens of thousands, with rich investors. The political culture too had large investments from big business, unions, parties and journalists. And it was perhaps their scale, or more accurately the size of the vested interests, which meant we blew the chance to address the bigger issues. For whilst there was appetite for reform, those with a lot at stake also ensured there wasn’t too much.
In particular, there was little willingness to question the values around which the institutions operated. In each case, despite the revelations of widespread corruption, a single group became the scapegoat – MPs, bankers or those connected with News of the World.
The worst offenders were reprimanded. Some were jailed. And everything was ‘fixed’ with better regulation. The political culture, the financial system and the press remained substantially unchanged. Our electoral system remains unreformed. Big banks have not been broken up, with their ‘casino’ and retail functions still coexisting happily. And other tabloids - or a new title - will scoop a share of the News of the World’s readership. We will have tinkered at the edges, without seriously questioning what lies at the centre.
But as with the world before the 1960s, there are still deeply ingrained scandals that have yet to be properly acknowledged, which have implications for some of the world’s most vulnerable groups.
While the biggest selling newspapers will continue to thrive on the misfortune and sexual scandal of celebrity (or the soap opera of phone-hacking) they will fail to splash on what should be the really big stories like the famine in East Africa. Meanwhile the food of the hungry and malnourished will continue to be another speculative instrument for financial markets, as prices are driven up by the rich getting richer (and globally that includes most of us).
Moreover, politicians still won’t take the necessary steps to address these and other problems, because they will continue to make decisions first and foremost to appease middle England (and selected newspapers whether they are owned by Murdoch or not) knowing that it is only a few ‘swing voters’ in marginal seats who determine elections.
Real change does not follow one, or even three, crises. It takes decades. And in some respects things aren’t all that different from sixty years ago.
© Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from his recent Church Times column.