Here we go again. I don’t often lose my temper, but this morning I nearly did.

The Church of England Newspaper (which hardly represents the Church of England) today has a scandalised headline that states: ‘Bishops expenses rise by millions since recession’. The ensuing article goes on to claim that ‘the news has riled clergy who believe the church is too top heavy and that resources should be distributed to support more mission and pastoral work for those “doing the ground work”.’ (‘Riled’? Really? How? And which clergy? How many? Who?)

Let’s take a moment’s silence while we try to hide our collective embarrassment at this hopelessly poor bit of ‘reporting’. Consider the following:

  • Recognising that the 2009 costs were hundreds of thousands of pounds lower than in 2008 (a good thing or not?), the profligate bishops cost more than they did in 2007! Funnily enough, they also cost more than they did in 1995 or 2002. What has that got to do with ‘the recession’?
  • The use of the word ‘expenses’ is wilfully misleading. The vast bulk of bishops’ expenditure goes on salaries for staff and the costs of running a functioning office. Why does a bishop run an office? For the sake of his own personal gratification or entertainment? No. In order to serve the clergy and parishes of his diocese as best he can.
  • A union officer shows staggering ignorance when she states: “More questions need to be asked about why there are these huge increases when clergy are not experiencing the same increases”. Er… that is breathtakingly inept. This year’s reduction is now ‘a huge increase’? Does she think this refers to a bishop’s income over against a vicar’s income? If anything, more questions need to be asked about why this union officer appears not to know the business of her core client.
  • A Church Society spokesman complains about “rising bureaucracy in the Church’s hierarchy” – without saying what this so-called bureaucracy involves. Might it have to do with the massive increase in legislation and legal responsibilities now lying at the bishops’ door? Does he think bishops live for bureaucracy. Not having heard of the ninth Commandment, he doesn’t even say to what he refers. What price facts?
  • The chairman of Reform admits he doesn’t know what the figures mean, but that doesn’t stop him joining in the whinge.

Now, forgive me for being over-sensitive here, but where does reality intrude into this nonsense? The entire report basically says that costs have gone down this year, but have gone up in past years – without congratulating the bishops (or the Church Commissioners) for reducing costs in the face of increasing demands (legal and financial – such as pension costs of staff). That would be inconvenient, wouldn’t it?

Here are some facts from one minor bishop:

  • Suffragan bishops are housed by the diocese, not the Church Commissioners. That is the only cost on the diocese. We don’t live in ‘palaces’, but in houses that should be fit for purpose. Mine is excellent – it used to be a vicarage.
  • Bishops are not paid by their diocese, but by the Church Commissioners. There is not a necessary correlation between finances available for bishops and diocesan clergy. Or would we prefer bishops’ costs to be borne directly by the dioceses? (Some would say ‘yes’ – but they need to check the realities before concluding.)
  • Many of us don’t spend our allocated ‘expenses of office’ because we are careful with them. At the end of October I have nearly £7,000 in my account; I will not find things to spend it on in order not to lose it (as someone recently suggested bishops do) and I will lose it at the end of the year and that is right. I am not alone.
  • Bishops cover wide distances in the exercise of their ministry and are leased a car (if they wish) for that purpose.
  • The last time I looked, bishops were involved in ‘mission and pastoral work on the ground’. What else are we supposed to be doing – often under great pressure and at some personal cost? What do they think motivates a bishop?

What do the people who write this stuff think we do all day? Do they think we swan around in purple being grand and remote? Do they know anything about the reality of a bishop’s life, diary or ministry? Do they ever check facts before exposing their prejudices?

Being a bishop is a privilege. The bishop’s fundamental role is to enable the clergy, parishes and institutions to do their ministry and mission in their parishes – resourcing, encouraging, leading and supporting. To do this well comes at cost. If it is to be done differently (which might be right), then we need to work out what it would cost… which might be more than financial.

Over-sensitive, I may be. Unwise to write it out like this – possibly. But, this stuff shouldn’t go unchallenged – and I haven’t seen anyone else challenge it yet.

Morgan-TsvangiraiIran is in a turmoil that was inconceivable even a month ago. Today Morgan Tsvangirai, Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, was shouted down at Southwark Cathedral whilst urging expatriates to return to their homeland despite a lack of reassurance about their personal safety or prospects for the rule of law. In just over one week I will be back in Kazakhstan for a global inter-religious congress – a country that has moved in under two decades from being a disastrous republic of the Soviet Union into a successful and competitive world player – where admiration for British democracy might be a little tempered by the goings-on at Westminster in recent weeks. And the joyful humiliation of MPs continues in the UK, watched with incredulity from outside and embarrassment from within.

And here I am, at my desk, with Bruce Cockburn angrily singing his critique of western political and militarysupport for dodgy Central American regimes in the 1980s: They call it democracy.

Apparently, everybody in the UK is furiously angry with our profligate, dishonest and greedy politicians. That might be true – in the same way that everybody in the UK is a ‘loyal subject’ of Her Majesty. Maybe I just mix in the wrong circles (ordinary people in ordinary places – this morning with a group made up largely but not exclusively of pensioners), but I don’t see the anger we are being told we are feeling. I do hear expressions of wishing we could move on and wondering about who is doing the really important political stuff at Westminster while the feeding frenzy continues.

ParliamentNow, I realise that I will be told (very firmly and without hint of possible contradiction) that I am out of step with the public mood. Again, that might be true – but who says? And how would they know? If I am out of step with the ‘public mood’, then I am not going to apologise. I hadn’t realised until recently that the ‘public mood’ was the ultimate arbiter of morality and public truth – that to dissent from the ‘public mood’ was to be, by definition, wrong and suspect.

The ‘public moood’ would have lynched suspected paedophiles in Portsmouth a couple of years ago. The ‘public mood’ voted Hitler into power in the 1930s. The ‘public mood’ is probably the least trustworthy guide to moral decision-making that could possibly be found. Ask a random sample of the public if they are angry with MPs and there is little alternative but to concur; ask what people think or feel about MPs and the answer might be a little bit more nuanced.

I am worried about all this, not because I think MPs have behaved well or deserve special treatment outside of normal financial ethics. Abuses of expenses are indefensible – but so is inaccurate and sensational pillorying of particular MPs without adequate explanation of the criteria being cited. For example, do we really expect to be well served by MPs without providing them with office back-up (PA, secretary, stationery, phones, etc)? Yet when these figures are deducted from some of the huge numbers featuring in reports, the figures look less offensive. I object to being told that an MP is ‘a scandal’ for claiming half a million pounds in ‘expenses’ over the last five years when the charge is made in complete ignorance of what is needed by way of office support for our elected representatives to do their job. This is mere sensationalism.

I said I was worried. I am. I am worried about the effects of all this on the sort of people who might now put themselves forward for public office. (There is an awful lot of smug self-righteousness around in propsective parliamentary candidates right now.) Are we going to get the best quality of people (of ability and integrity) to put themselves forward for an office that will evoke scorn, suspicion and potential humiliation?

Is now the time for MPs to have their expenses scrutinised by an independent body, be asked to repay any anomalies, commit to investigation by the police any criminal activity – and then let Parliament get back to doing what we need it to do: govern the country and have MPs scrutinising legislation rather than scrutinising their expenses sheets? Hasn’t the feeding frenzy now gone far enough?

women violenceOr is it just easier to be part of the baying mob, directing our imputed ‘anger’ at someone else, prolonging the embarrassment of ‘privileged’ people and ignoring the consequences to our democracy and its institutions?

Oh, and by the way, is there not something ‘morally dubious’ about my local ‘newspaper’, The Croydon Advertiser, standing on its moral superiority in relation to MPs while taking advertising money from pimps engaged in trafficking women and exploiting them for sex? Just asking…

Interestingly hostile reactions from several journalists to my last blog – which made me go back and re-think it. The problem is that I stand by what I wrote, even if the tone was pretty harsh.

TelegraphWhen dealing with moral issues, we cannot take one case in isolation from others. Maybe now is not the time for the media to give attention to their own behaviour – the preoccupation with the expenses hysteria is too noisy – but attention needs to be given to it at some point. British journalism is an embarrassment in other parts of the world of which I have first-hand knowledge. I also spent years reading Pravda, Izvestiya and other propaganda organs in the bad old days and keep up with them (from time to time) even now; this is a complicated area and worthy of more sober examination. ‘Media morality’ is too important a social matter to be left as an academic concern of the few – it impinges on psychology as well as sociology.

Roy Greenslade has defended the Telegraph in his blog. I take his point (you’ll have to read it to see what that is), but think there remain questions about the ethics of buying leaks – for example, the diminution of trust such behaviour engenders. And, for the record, Martin Beckford has written helpfully about ‘an honest MP’.

Let’s be clear:

  • there are some very good journalists whose judgements I trust and whose integrity (in a tough world) I respect. Good media are essential to good democracy. The media have a vital role in investigating where subterfuge is designed to conceal what should be exposed to the light. (Roy Greenslade cites the case of Thalidomide.)
  • Most MPs offer themselves for public service and do a very good job. Their reward is to be pilloried by a media that then asks why people trust politicians so little. We are mature – we can de-elect them next time round if we don’t like them.
  • Criticism of the bad needs to be balanced by elevation of the good. Where are the good stories about politicians? Or are we content to see a generation of cynics grow up, exposed only to our sneering contempt? Why would the sort of people we want to go into public life actually do so – when all you can expect is this sort of negative attention?
  • This is not about publishing only anodyne fluff stories. It is about portraying the whole of life and praising what is good as well as castigating the bad.

But, I repeat the question that won’t go away: will editors publish their expenses with receipts? The media are not morally neutral and do not occupy neutral space in our society.

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