Public trust has reached a low with journalists, bankers, politicians and police officers acquiring a tarnished image.
Day after day for the past few weeks the UK has been swamped by ever more revelations in the phone hacking turmoil that has so far led to the closure of the News of the World, one of the leading newspapers in the Rupert Murdoch News International empire, to the resignations of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, and Assistant Commissioner John Yates, and to the acute embarrassment of the Prime Minister, David Cameron.
Many journalists have been shown to have broken the law by hacking telephones, and by offering bribes to the police. Police officers have been shown to have had unhealthily close social contacts with journalists and senior figures in the newspaper world. Politicians, on both sides of the political divide, have similarly demonstrated a willingness to cosy up to senior newspaper figures.
Coverage of all this has dominated the media for weeks. Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, and a protégée of Rupert Murdoch, resigned under great pressure — and was arrested and questioned by the police. She, with Rupert Murdoch and his son James, have been questioned by a House of Commons select committee. So have Sir Paul Stephenson and Mr. Yates.
If anyone two months ago had predicted all this, or anything remotely like it, the prediction would have been laughed off as totally absurd. When it all began to emerge, however, it quickly became possible to see it as symptomatic of a much wider malaise in the British body politic.
Two years ago, many members of Parliament came under severely critical scrutiny for making false expenses claims. To say that this had a serious effect on the reputation not only of the MPs but of Parliament itself would be an understatement. The repercussions are still apparent, and some politicians have been sentenced to imprisonment.
Against this depressing background, the country faced its major financial crisis, and many senior bankers were shown to be incompetent. They were also shown to be greedy, grabbing large bonuses which appeared to members of the public to be a reward for failure.
Bankers, newspaper owners, journalists, politicians and police have acquired greatly tarnished reputations.
It is obviously important to keep all this in perspective. There are many journalists who have behaved ethically — and skillfully — in turning the spotlight on the things that have gone wrong (including the phone hacking by fellow journalists). There are many bankers who do their job properly and honestly. The same is true of politicians, and of police officers.
A major problem that has become daily more apparent, however, is that many of those in positions of leadership, even when their behaviour has been legal, have shown themselves to lack an appropriate moral compass.
For senior politicians to have social contacts with journalists and newspaper executives is not in itself wrong. To have such contacts to the extent that is now seen to have happened shows a very serious lack of judgment.
For senior police officers to nurture social contacts with newspaper executives — particularly when things that have been going on in the newspapers which they own — also demonstrates a serious lack of judgment.
As more and more revelations have emerged, public shock and cynicism have been growing. Public trust in those elements of society which should be maintaining, and protecting, high standards, is certainly now at a low level. As the investigations continue — and a major police investigation into phone hacking and related matters is now under way — there will certainly be further revelations to shock and disturb us.
For the long term, it is worth trying to take a strategic view of the situation. Major questions need to be considered. They include: will politicians in future be careful to resist allowing themselves to be unreasonably influenced by newspaper proprietors? Will the police ensure that they prosecute anyone offering or taking a bribe — including police officers? Will the police in future be wary of getting too close socially to people and organisations which they may need to investigate? And more broadly, will those who are in a position to influence opinion — and that includes journalists as well as politicians — take serious steps to change the climate which allows many bankers to damage society by their greed?
We are not out of the wood yet, and more distressing things are likely to emerge. If, when it is all over, we can be confident that nationally we have developed a new ethos, some good will have come out of the scandals.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org