When the Telegraph launched its month-long revelation of MPs’ expenses I posted a very critical response. In turn I was heavily criticised and posted further pieces as the very interesting debate between several offended journalists, me and others developed.

My fundamental charge was (put succinctly) that having ‘pulled down’ trust in public servants, what responsibility does the media have for ‘building up’ trust in public institutions? I was roundly told that the media have no responsibility for building up: they merely report what the wicked people do and leave it to the rest of us to put the pieces back together again. I refused (and continue to refuse) to accept this – that as long as journalists consider themselves to be part of civil society, they have a responsibility to be constructive within it. Or, put differently, those who hold the rest of us to account must themselves be open to public accountability for their own behaviour. The media do not only ‘reflect’ our culture, they shape it powerfully.)

Part of my concern in these matters derives from the deep respect I have for many politicians at both local and national level. Much of their work is unseen and unglamorous, they often work very long hours in the interests of their constituents, they are required to master ridiculously detailed briefs on a ridiculously broad range of matters, and they are then held up to ridicule, denigration and suspicion by media people who make a living out of critical observation of others. Perhaps this is why so many good politicians (as well as bad ones) are now questioning whether or not they should stay in public life any longer. Many of us wonder why they have stayed so long.

It seems fundamental to human flourishing that people need to be valued and affirmed. Perhaps it should not be surprising that we don’t get the best out of people who are consistently derided and constantly having to defend themselves. And if journalists consistently rank below politicians in public trust ratings, it is a little surprising that we give such authority to journalists when they write negatively about politicians.

Now, none of this is written to condemn journalists or naively praise politicians. It is just how it is – and maybe always has been. But, despite cries for a change in how we address our public culture, there has been a distinct lack of positive movement in addressing widespread concerns about the corruption of our public discourse. Again, perhaps it should not surprise us that political apathy – reflected in fewer and fewer voters exercising their democratic responsibility – proves to be the fruit of such ‘language’.

So, the launch of the Citizen Ethics Network is hugely welcome. This has been established in conjunction with the Guardian and its inaugural pamphlet (which was published with Saturday’s Guardian) can be downloaded and debate entered on the Comment is Free website. When I read it I felt genuine hope for the first time in a long time that it might be possible to change the way we talk about ethics, public policy and those who engage in the public discourse. Perhaps, at last, we can begin to talk properly, intelligently and passionately (but politely) about how we are constructing our public life and conversation about it.

The foreword by Philip Pullman is superb (apart from a single line – which I will mention later). He describes three characteristics of a virtuous state:

  • courage: the courage to keep economics in its right place and for public servants to do what is right even when faced with strong persuasion to do otherwise;
  • modesty: inviting Britain to become realistic about its contemporary reality in the world and cut its image-cloth accordingly;
  • intellectual curiosity: linking such curiosity to freedom and claiming (rightly) that ‘delight’ is fundamental to a culture that promotes freedom:

…delight is like a canary in a coal mine: while it sings, we know that the great public virtue of liberty is still alive. A nation whose laws express fear and suspicion and hostility cannot sustain delight for very long. If joy goes, freedom is in danger. A nation that was brave, and modest, and curious would understand that, and would never forget the value of telling its children stories.

Each contribution in the pamphlet is worth reading – if only to see how differently people see ‘virtue’ and, therefore,  how essential is the task of creating a common conversation built on respect, curiosity and commitment to human flourishing and the public good.

My only small caveat in this is in a single sentence from Pullman’s foreword:

Those who insist that all ethical teaching must be religious in origin are talking nonsense. Some of it is: much of it isn’t.

In my experience the problem lies not with religious people thinking they have a monopoly on virtue, but with non-religious people assuming that religious people think they have such a monopoly. The response is to try to exclude religious thinkers from the conversation. I wonder why Pullman didn’t write: “Much of it is: some of it isn’t.” That might have been more accurate. The point is, however, that ‘secularists’ need to stop trying to ridicule or exclude religious voices – whilst religious people need to listen carefully to what secularists say and how they see the world and human meaning. That way lies a conversation that will be courageous, modest and brimming with intellectual curiosity – and ultimately leading (hopefully) to delight.

As the great Bruce Cockburn wrote:

Amid the rumours and the expectations / and all the stories dreamt and lived / Amid the clangour and the dislocation / and things to fear and to forgive / Don’t forget about delight…

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