The conference season of the political parties has done little to turn the tide of public cynicism towards politicians, and the trouble is that their slogans and promises are more than ever taken as ‘just words’ with little substance. That makes it hard for a political party to get its policy statements taken seriously. Like the Christian doctrine of the fall, once breaking election promises has become normal, it is almost impossible to scramble back to a position of truth telling. And that gradually endangers the legitimacy of elected governments and the democratic process since MPs are sitting in Parliament because of promises given and later broken.
This of course is yet another dimension of the ‘de-Christianisation’ of state and society now so evident. Virtues are not expected to be guiding norms for our politicians, rather pure pragmatism and Realpolitik are the order of the day.
The same applies to the world of the media as the ghastly truth of Jimmy Savile emerges into the light after a long time hidden. Power, sex, money, celebrity: all the secular western gods worshipped so eagerly by so many, these seem to have created and then hidden this narrative of exploitation of children. Only the courage of the first of the victims to come forward allowed the facts out from under the stone, leading to a flow of testimony from people whose youth was blighted by this abuse. The behaviour of the BBC, as we look back at its responses, was less than virtuous. At first its new DG, a longstanding employee, ‘ruled out an inquiry’ until the Prime Minister intervened. He also defended the decision to pull a Newsnight programme, due to screened at the end of 2011, which did in fact ask pertinent questions about Savile’s behaviour in relation to girls at a school in Surrey. Why this deep reluctance to investigate a toxic dimension that needed to be named and shamed? And why no independent external inquiry?
The answer has to be connected with the very closed nature of such organisations and their tendency to cover up rather than openly apologise and reform. Such corporate behemoths are always at risk from a version of the Roman doctrine of infallibility: they know best, by definition. That sort of culture is always prone to falling into the trap of not taking its own sins seriously. Employees can even have ‘gagging clauses’ in their contracts against whistleblowing – that is a practice needing reform.
It was unfortunate that the BBC was not taken into the remit of the Leveson Inquiry and its scrutiny of media behaviour and manipulation. It was the press, ironically, that disclosed this story about the BBC! Virtue and transparency in public life: we need these Christian values back. No organisation is perfect, but real wrongs must be open to transparent scrutiny and genuine reform: cover up deepens the wrong, as the priest abuse scandal also shows.