We Need Saints in the Cabinet, not Vigilantes in the Newsroom
When Philip Schofield passed a list of alleged sexual abusers to David Cameron on camera it was clear the Prime Minister was not pleased.
This was not a simple matter of the government or the Tory party facing charges of ‘honours for cash’ or of political ‘u-turns’. The possibility that senior members of the party had sexually abused minors decades ago is far more serious. If true, it has scarred the lives of the abused.
Let it be noted, however, that we are looking at a kind of vigilantism in the media which want to act as arbiters of morality without ever carrying the weight of moral responsibility. Granted, they may not be claiming the moral high ground as such, and do not pretend to make laws or even to have powers to enforce them. They do, however, claim to ‘hold ministers to account’, or in this to be justified in ambushing the Prime Minister with reports of allegations that in any civilised country ought to be dealt with by police and judiciary, something David Cameron was swift to point out. Justice is not going to be served by such antics on morning television, however seriously its journalists may take their work.
That said, we do seem inclined to accommodate ‘grey areas’ of moral conduct in and about the press and broadcasting as far as we may feel it useful at any moment to do so. We need a free press to inform us properly about national affairs and to help ensure that the levers of power are not manipulated purely for personal gain or destructive purposes. But, when journalists forget their place in society, and chase after headlines that may make them as famous as the people they are interviewing, they run a very serious risk of bringing their profession into disrepute.
The phone-hacking scandal and subsequent Levenson enquiry have exposed in detail the immoral conduct of some journalists and have understandably raised questions about greater state regulation of the press. While the irresponsible behaviour of a Philip Schofield may not be as duplicitous as illegal hacking of phones it was probably just as unwise. And that for a simple reason: when it becomes clear that journalists are more interested in themselves than in the subjects they report it becomes difficult for the public to trust them. Moreover, when journalists overplay ‘actions in the public interest’ and branch out into illegal activity of their own they threaten the very freedom that underpins their own efficacy. If all journalists acted illegally no responsible government could fail to seek means of curbing press freedom, even if that in turn might undermine the proper functioning of democratic institiutions. The profession of journalism must be one of service to readers, listeners and viewers, but also to the more sober ideals of democracy.
Sadly, this lament over the behaviour of some journalists follows hot on the heels of laments about politicians and clergy. While the clerical abuse crisis has hit the Catholic Church, the moral conduct of parliamentarians has hardly been exemplary. The expenses scandal caused much damage to Westminster’s reputation, and it is not over yet as new charges are now appearing.
Meanwhile discussions of ‘morality’ are strangely absent from public discourse. Misconduct is increasingly described as ‘inappropriate behaviour’, rather than, more accurately, as moral wrongdoing.
It is not easy to suggest remedies other than recommendations to press, clergy and political class to rediscover the moral energy required to do their jobs adequately. Indeed, it would be no small progress if it could only be agreed that moral energy were indeed needed in those taking up positions in public life. As things stand, it is understandable that some are altogether despairing of public institutions.
Our Prime Minister may not be a saint — though doubtless he tries hard –, but we must give importance to morally upright conduct in public affairs if we are to preserve a precious free society.