Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Unhealthy Relationships

Was David Cameron's appointment of Andy Coulson as his Director of Communications just as bad as Scotland Yard's contract with his former deputy at the News of the World, Neil Wallis, as a media consultant? No, it was much worse.

The police are responsible for upholding the rule of law (not just 'fighting crime', as that paper preferred to put it). The resigning Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, acknowledged that his force had been compromised in that task by the contract with Wallis; but he could not resist hinting that the Prime Minister had made the same mistake. In fact, Cameron was far more at fault, for the following reasons:

First, governments have far broader responsibilities. Law and order and defence are fundamental, but governments are ultimately the guardians of all the 'public goods' from which the whole of society benefits. The most important of these are intangible, qualitative features of social relationships, such as decency, honesty, fairness and solidarity.

Of course, governments cannot 'deliver' these, but they can set the tone and protect an environment in which they flourish. They can also look for ways to clamp down on organisations which systematically promote their opposites - corruption, exploitation, cynicism, division and the depletion of society's cultural resources - or at very least offer them no encouragement.

Even before the police gained (and chose for many years to ignore) the evidence of endemic criminality at the News of the World, it was common knowledge that its executives and editors were running such an organisation. Yet successive prime ministers paid court to them, and Cameron's appointment of Coulson went a step further in bringing one of them into government itself.

Second, the state is not a company or a brand, however many useless logos and hubristic mission statements it agencies may choose to adopt. In a democracy, it is suppose to express the public interest, based on the will of the people. Its communications with citizens should seek to clarify this interest and this will; they should not ape businesses in cultivating 'public relations' (even if this was the professional background of the prime minister).

Third, those who hold political power should be accountable to their citizens for their actions. Yet for several decades they have used newspapers like the News of the World as proxies for the people, adding a layer of insulation between themselves and those they are supposed to represent. In this way, they have compromised democracy itself, and allowed the integrity of the political process to be subverted.

Fourth, they have facilitated the view - popularised by global businesses like News Corporation - that governments are given powers of compulsory taxation solely to supply those services which cannot be organised more 'efficiently' by a private firm. This narrow view ignored all the reasons for protecting a flourishing public sphere other than those of costs to taxpayers, and it legitimated a rolling programme of privatisation, and a relentless critique of public benefits and services, along with the demonisation of many who used them. As the largest media empire, News Corporation was empowered by this unchallenged ideology, and governments surrendered to it. Coulson's appointment signalled a further step in this process, and revealed the limitations of Cameron's 'Big Society' - not big enough to stand up to big business.

Too late, this government has found out what was missing from this ideology was a recognition of the potentially corrosive power of such businesses on institutions, cultures and the qualities on which successful societies rely. The trustworthiness of a whole elite has been undermined, along with that of the police, and we now face years of enquiries and court hearings before they will be restored.

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