Saturday, 16 July 2011

15 July 2011

What is it, do you think, about (some) bankers, (some) MPs, and (some) News of the World journalists?

What was going on inside their heads when they behaved so appallingly that – when the rest of us discovered what they were up to – the institutions for which they worked teetered and shuddered under almost unbearable strain? (In the case of the News of the World, of course, the strain really was unbearable.)

Did the bankers really think there was nothing wrong with investing billions they didn’t have in financial products they didn’t understand?

Did the MPs really think it was fine to claim money back from tax-payers for expenses they either hadn’t incurred or which clearly had nothing to do with their jobs?

Did the NoW journalists really not pause, even for a moment, to wonder if maybe hacking into people’s voicemail messages was not something they were perfectly entitled to do?

And while I’m at it, did Scotland Yard really think it was a good idea to hire a former senior NoW editorial executive as a PR adviser even while they were supposedly investigating allegations of illegal phone message hacking – by the News of the World?

We all have different ways of judging what we regard as ethical or moral behaviour. But I suspect there aren’t many people around who see nothing wrong with the way these various bankers, MPs, and journalists have behaved.

Me? I try to apply the Private Eye test: how would I feel if my actions were to be published in the next issue of that satirical organ of investigative reporting and lampoonery? If the very thought brings me out in a cold sweat, I quickly deem the proposed actions inappropriate.

If the bankers, MPs and journalists had done the same, we may well all have been spared a huge amount of trouble.

But of course it goes deeper than that. If bankers had been more open about how much they were lending to whom, and on what terms, maybe someone, somewhere would have sounded an alarm bell.

If MPs had been obliged to publish their expenses claims, as they are now, maybe some of them would have thought twice or even three times about the claims they submitted.

And if the News of the World had published at the bottom of each relevant article: “The information reported in this story was obtained by hacking into the voicemail messages of person X”, well, maybe, they wouldn’t have.

So, much as I hate the use of the word in this context, the secret seems to be more transparency – openness, if you prefer.

The more we know about why and how people in positions of power or influence take the decisions they do, the more able we are to let them know when we think they’re going off the rails.

And if you think we’ve been making a bit too much of all this phone-hacking stuff, consider this.

A democratic, capitalist society requires several sound and stable institutions to ensure that it serves the interests of the most people possible. It requires basic freedoms, including the freedom of an unfettered press which afflicts only the comfortable and comforts only the afflicted; it also needs a parliamentary system in which politicians govern with the fully informed consent of those whom they govern.

Plus, a system of finance which offers fair dealing, stability and prosperity; and a police service to deliver peace and harmony without fear or favour.

It’s beginning to look as if on each of those considerations, Britain has been falling well short of what its citizens are entitled to expect. And the reasons, perhaps, in just a few words: arrogance, secrecy, and greed. If we can chip away at the secrecy (as a journalist, I would say that, wouldn’t I?), we might be better able to discern whatever arrogance and greed remain.

Meanwhile, the financial storm clouds are gathering again. President Obama could be heading for a major budgetary crisis – and unless it is averted at the 11th hour, which it may well be, the global markets are likely to tumble headlong in panic.

Oh yes, and Italy is heading for trouble too. The markets have woken up to its shaky economic prospects and vast public debt, and the respected Italian finance minister Giulio Tremonti is embroiled in a major domestic political row.

He has warned his compatriots in stark terms of the likely consequences if he is forced from office. “If I fall, Italy falls. And if Italy falls, so does the euro.”

So I suspect we’re in for a long, hot summer. (And no, that’s not a weather forecast.) Next Tuesday, for sure, will be a scorcher: Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson, Rupert and James Murdoch, and Rebekah Brooks, will all be giving evidence to parliamentary select committees on the same day. You can be sure the MPs on those committees will not want to miss the opportunity to show what they’re made of.

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