Scandals do seem terribly important in the world – without them the media would have to fall back on celebrity trivia, the voluminous output of the world’s PR machine and speculation for even more of their “news” content than is already the case
The media have themselves been rather mired in scandal of late which has allowed politicians, an unsavoury group that the fourth estate is supposed to keep in check, to gain the upper hand. I’m not sure this is terribly healthy in a democracy – I was under the impression that a free press was quite an important element of maintaining a nominally free society. I’m not at all clear what this new Royal Charter is supposed to achieve – other than as a piece of political mis-direction – as all the recent press naughtiness it is supposed to prevent already seems to be covered by existing (if unenforced) laws. Perhaps the money and time might have been better invested in improving enforcement of existing statutes rather than creating new ones not to enforce.
The press and politicos regularly come very low in measures of public trust – probably somewhere around the estate agent and second-hand car salesman of popular stereotype. Rather than doing anything which might improve their standing, their main response seems to be to try and degrade public faith in much more popular and better trusted organisations (I’m sure attacks on Judi Dench and Stephen Fry can’t be far off). I guess this is on the same principle that if you want to appear thinner, rather than losing weight you could save yourself effort by just hanging around with much fatter people.
Frequent targets for such attempts at public degradation would seem to be the Police, the BBC, the NHS and schools. All have the major disadvantage that they are large, highly visible organisations heavily beholden to government (so are limited in how much they can fight back) and which have been used as political footballs for a very long time. Being large organisations they make mistakes, sometimes terrible mistakes, as all large organisations do – but rarely receive huge bailouts using public funds in response as, to take but one example, the banks did in the not so distant past. In common with most large organisations, they are all pretty dreadful at dealing with mistakes after they have been discovered – we don’t have to look far to see large private corporations with very well-funded PR departments making similar or worse messes. I will, however, admit to frank amazement at how few corporate sex scandals dating back to the 1970s or 80s have yet surfaced which would suggest that some damage limitation is working very effectively (or is it just the lack of a celebrity angle preventing traction in the media?).
Many of the errors made by the public entities I have mentioned relate to, or are exacerbated by, the organisation tending to close ranks to protect apparent (or, indeed, actual) wrong doers. Given the record of almost continuous attacks by both government and the press on these organisations for at least the 30 years when I have been (in age terms at least) an adult, this tendency to defensiveness is not so very surprising. I have lost count of the number of major revolutions our schools and hospitals have been subjected to over the last couple of decades – any country or company treated this way would have been utterly destroyed by such treatment, but somehow education and the NHS struggle on surprisingly well.
Clearly, large publicly funded organisation require oversight – and this is, I believe, a role our elected representatives are supposed to fulfil. However, this role seems rather incompatible with a number of other interactions between the overseers and the overseen:
- the tendency of our representatives to use them as guinea pigs for any pet theory being hatched in the fevered mind of a cabinet minister (or his – or very rarely her – inconceivably highly-paid and unelected “advisers”);
- their convenient status as a diversion from inconvenient political realities when the “bread-and-circuses” of celebrity tittle-tattle seems in danger of failing to placate the plebeian hordes; and
- their role as a convenient source of savings or spending (delete as appropriate) to attract the floating voter in a very small number of marginal constituencies to allow our representatives to return to the Westminster gravy train.
Perhaps we need an apolitical elected body for such oversight, which might also be able to train its gimlet stare on the politically elected and the press? The omens are not good, recent(ish) elections for the rather nebulous role of police commissioner were fully hijacked by the existing political lobbies and largely ignored by a disenchanted electorate. How does one make electing an auditor seem worthwhile whilst keeping those already in power (or with hopes of quickly returning thereto) well away from it? (Audit is always a tough sell, the role being likened to those that go around after a battle to stab the wounded). Clearly we do not want to end up with the US system which, on recent showing, seems even worse than our own. I’m open to ideas – or failing that, does anyone have Mary Warnock’s contact details? She has a good track record in tackling very thorny issues as I was recently reminded by Lisa Jardine on A Point of View (discussing, as it transpires, an important issue unable to gain any attention from a scandal and celebrity-obsessed press).