Oh dear. Tens of millions of pounds lost to the taxpayer by firms overcharging for privatised services. Good on the Justice Minister for referring the whole mess to the Serious Fraud Office.

What now, then? Will the whole system of privatised services be questioned in the same way as is the welfare system? Will business owners be pursued because of their moral failings as well as their bureaucratic or financial ‘weaknesses’ (or are ‘scroungers and skivers’ more morally culpable than those who steal money in other ways)?

Just asking (during a spare minute at the desk).

The trouble is, of course, that we can't roll back the years. We can't de-invent the nuclear bomb or some of the technological 'advances' that now create – according to the Law of Unintended Consequences – complex ethical dilemmas for us. We now live in the “we can, therefore we must” rather than the “you can't get an 'ought' from an 'is' generation.

This applies also to media. New social media bring particular challenges to an ordered society and this has been evidenced again by the killing of a soldier in Woolwich last week. The ubiquity and immediacy of social media and smart phones provide fantastic tools for social communication and democratising informant sharing. However, they also create other problems – for example, in relation to law, due process and our ability to sustain the assumptions upon which our legal system has been based for centuries.

I have just read a piece by solicitor, David Cook, that pushes this a little further. Concerned by the recording and broadcasting of one of the accused talking to camera, he asks if the media reality will, in the end, (a) make prosecution more difficult, and/or (b) force a change to law to remove the role of potential prejudice in a widely-reported case.

This is not an easy one. The 'rights' of the media to report (and of individuals to record and propagate) any incident that happens in the public square potentially clashes against a process in which even an apparently culpable suspect is due a fair trial. Compromise this notion of 'innocence until proven guilty' and we will encounter further 'unintended consequences in the future.

I have just taken part in a rather frustrating remote discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme. Frustrating only because (I think) Ed Stourton was in Manchester, Eric Lonergan was in London, Professor John Milbank was in Nottingham and I was in Bradford – so, none of us could see each other… which makes interruption, eye contact and real engagement rather difficult.

Naturally, the theme arose from the events in London and elsewhere and the questions raised by the Occupy movement. Away from the heat of the particular (how St Paul’s Cathedral was handling the ‘crisis’, for example), it was possible to take a step back and ask some of the important questions about money, markets and morality. The programme can be located here, the particular discussion coming over half-way in.

It seems to me that the key to discussing these issues lies in nobbling the assumptions behind the language we use. Markets are never ‘free’ in the sense that they are neutral: they are shaped by human choices, values and priorities. The question is: which choices, according to which priorities, derived from which values, shaped by which assumptions about who we are and how the world should be?

John Milbank spoke of the ‘disconnect between the City and real people’, but this disconnect also exposes the vacuum in identifying and shaping the moral framework within (and from) which our financial business should be done. This is not anti-capitalist. Rather, it is a recognition that capitalism needs effective regulation, a shared set of moral values, a framework of mutual accountability and honest language.

City workers were asked if there is a moral framework within which the City or the markets operate. Odd question. Of course, there is – there is no neutral space shaped by value-free (or self-evidently noble) morality. The question simply has to do with the questions I cited above. I was a little unnerved to hear City workers saying things like, “We work incredibly hard” and “We are just doing a job”. I can think of other (incomparable) circumstances in history where such disclaimers are disallowed.

Anyway, I have to go to work on the sabbath. There clearly needs to be a more general debate within society about who shapes the moral framework for our business and economic life and how we better engage wider society in ownership of those choices. But, for this there has to be a growing experience of mutual responsibility at every level, reduced abstraction of economic life, a rehumanising of business, and a re-definition or re-articulation of public economic morality.

And we need to re-examine the connection between individual moral choosing and the common moral framing of our common life. After all, the economy exists not for the sake of the market, but in order better to shape our common life for the common good.

 

There’s a bit in the book of the prophet Jeremiah where the king, Hezekiah, asks Jeremiah: “Does the Lord have a word for us today?” the answer is ‘yes’, but the king doesn’t like it when he hears it. It doesn’t press the right political buttons. It is inconvenient to the dominant ideology. So, it gets dumped. Today it would simply get ridiculed.

The question itself, however, provides the lens through which I look when writing Pause for Thought scripts for BBC Radio 2 (principally these days for the Chris Evans Show). Of course, people don’t articulate it in that language; but, I assume they are asking a similar question: “Will someone help me make sense of this?” or “Will someone shed a different light on this, so I can think it through?” The choice of language – as well as theme – then matters.


When I was asked to go into the studio to do a ‘live’ broadcast a couple of days after 9/11, this was how I thought about it. It was a similar process after the Tsunami, the death of Princess Diana, and other big events. But, it plies to the ordinary times of life, too.

I pick this out now because of what I wrote in the last post about the silence of the Archbishop of Canterbury during the riots in London and other English cities. In one sense, Rowan had nothing new to say that he hadn’t already been saying for years.

Think about his penetrating book, Lost Icons, in which he questioned the consequences of (for example) the sexualisation of children and the refusal of adults to behave like adults (by competing with children in the sexuality market).

Consider his considered thinking and writing in the wake of the Children’s Society ‘Good Childhood Report’ – criticised because he didn’t let adults or parents off the responsibility hook and questioned the destiny of the ‘me’ generation in which ‘personal fulfilment now’ trumps everything else and justifies any behaviour.

Consider what he actually wrote in the New Statesman edition recently and the questions he put to the Government, the Opposition and the rest of us about the values upon which our society is being built. (Ignore the ridiculous media furore and address the actual questions.)

Rather than being silent, in fact he’s been banging on about this stuff endlessly for years. But, people who haven’t listened now turn round and tell him he hasn’t spoken. Bizarre or what?

Rowan once said that when people accuse him of ‘not leading’, what they really mean is that he isn’t going where they want him to take them – and that when they want him to ‘speak out’, they really mean they want him to say loudly what they want to hear.

Unfortunately, that has never been the job of the prophets.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:New York, USA

Having been out of blogging action for a little while (leaving, moving, settling, starting, lacking wi-fi, mind on other things, etc.), it’s one word that has got me going again. In my last post following the killing of Osama Bin Laden, I stated that ‘vengeance is not necessarily the same as justice’.

Apparently, this sort of thinking is just ‘hand-wringing’. The Archbishop of Canterbury questions on moral grounds the killing of Bin Laden – not a man who often resorts to unthinking utterance – and this is reduced to ‘hand-wringing’.

OK, let’s get one thing out of the way first: can the journalists who use this lazy cliche find something more interesting and less patronising?

The real point, however, is that ridicule is simply a way of avoiding difficult moral argument. Simply deride those who have the guts to face the questions the rest of us don’t want to wrestle with.

For example, my own involvement in Zimbabwe led me to believe that unless and until the rule of law is established there, little else can happen to sort the place out. What should Robert Mugabe learn from the killing of Bin Laden? Either the rule of law is fundamental or it isn’t.

The decision to kill Bin Laden is understandable at a number of levels, not least that of political pragmatism. The implications of putting an iconic figure like Bin Laden on trial in an international court raises more than a few questions and fears. But, to ask uncomfortable questions about the morality, the philosophical undergirding, the ethical rationale and the capacity for consistent application of the decision to ‘take him out’ (which, for once, seems an appropriate term) is not ‘hand-wringing’; rather, it is the essential thinking that someone needs to be doing when political pragmatism goes in directions we might find less ‘appropriate’ to our interests.

The irony, of course, is that the more the term ‘hand-wringing’ is used as lazy, dismissive, patronising journalese, the more it suggests that there is, in fact, a case for deeper – and more disturbing – questioning.

Hands up for the hand-wringers.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to say that morality is straightforward?

While on holiday I was reading William Boyd’s excellent book Ordinary Thunderstorms on the beach. I picked it up simply because it was set in London and I had read somewhere that he has a bit of a cult following. You have to suspend your sense of reality a bit – especially at the basic plot of the narrative – but it is a fast-moving and entertaining read.

But, what struck me was the way we so easily adopt hierarchies of morality and don’t seem to spot the inconsistencies. of course, we spot the inconsistencies of everyone else, but not our own. (I seem to remember Jesus saying something about specks and motes somewhere…)

Without spoiling the plot, there is a character – an assassin called Jonjo – who commits all sorts of violence against selected targets and finds imaginative ways to inflict pain. Trying to track down his main target, he has to engage along the way with drug dealers, prostitutes and other casualties of civil society. He treads a path through the hidden underbelly of London life.

But, while on this pursuit of the man he wants to kill, he spits out his contempt for what has happened to his city. He thinks that this ‘low life’ should be eradicated from the face of the earth, bemoaning what has become of London society. He is happy to blackmail, torture and murder human beings for personal monetary gain… but then can’t bring himself to shoot his own dog – the only time he gets remotely sentimental.

Reading this reminded me of a session I did a couple of decades ago in an open prison in England. I had been asked to address a group of around 100 prisoners and then face questions. It all went well until I responded to a question about something or other (I can’t remember what) and in my answer I mentioned the fact that when my first two children were born, we hardly had to buy them any clothes because so many people handed on stuff to us. Given that we were broke anyway, this was both welcome and necessary.

One prisoner got up and berated me. How could I possibly call myself a Christian and not buy the best new clothes for my own babies? Somehow this was offensive to him and I had my priorities all wrong. Later I asked the chaplain who the offended prisoner was and was told he was a double murderer coming to the end of his sentence.

So, murder was OK, but clothing my kids in secondhand clothes wasn’t.

This theme is brilliantly brought out in the excellent American series The Wire. Apart from expanding my vocabulary by multiple forms of the F word, the hierarchies of morality are cleverly explored (or exposed?) in a totally engrossing narrative. We are about to start on Series 4 (of 5) – next year we will re-watch the entire seven series of The West Wing. One character in The Wire is Omar – he seems to specialise in frustrating drug gangs, torturing people and killing those against whom he holds some grudge or other. He resorts to violence like the rest of us drink coffee.

In one episode of Series 3 Omar takes his mum to church. On the way out they get shot at by rival gangsters. Omar is livid and seems genuinely affronted by this. Not, as you might have assumed, by being shot at. No. What really wound him up was that he got shot at on Sunday when there was supposed to be a truce on shooting each other.

This then reminded me of the problems Jesus had with the self-righteous religious legalists. He kept healing the wrong people on the wrong day. Read the Gospels and you’ll see what I mean. When he heals a woman after years of suffering and social ostracism, ‘God’s people’ don’t celebrate; they just moan that he did it on the Sabbath and why couldn’t he have waited a day or two and been less embarrassing? It’s a repeated ability to completely miss the point.

In this sense, we are all the same as human beings. We easily spot the inconsistencies in the moral behaviour of others – especially those with whom we disagree. It is much harder to be honest about our own convenient hierarchies of morality. Only once in my 23 years of ordained ministry have I been asked to withhold Communion from someone who was sexually ‘compromised’; not once did anyone ask me to withhold Communion from someone who fiddled their expenses or used money in morally dubious ways. Yet Jesus said far more about money and greed than he ever did about sex.

flat-earth-news1One of the best books to come out of 2009 so far is Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News, subtitled ‘An award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media’. The title comes from the assertion that for millennia everbody thought the earth was flat – until someone could be bothered to go and find out that it wasn’t. Davies says that loads of ‘stories’ in the media are perceived as true until anyone looks into them properly. One of his complaints about contemporary journalism is the culture that pressurises journalists to produce stories without the facility or time to check their veracity. he’s even set up a website to pursue these things.

His big one is the so-called Millennium Bug. In the run-up to the turn of the millennium there was a widespread fear that computers would malfunction with global catastrophic effects becasue of a suspected inability of the computers to properly read the double-digit turn from 99 to 00. Millions of pounds were spent in attending to this ‘problem’ – only for nothing to happen. So, asks davies, how did this story become so ubiquitously powerful when there was never any truth behind it? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

cctv1Well, in yesterday’s Times David Aaronovitch wrote about the ‘strange case of the surveillance cameras’. The oft-repeated ‘fact’ is that we can be caught on camera in London 300 times per day: that is how pervasive the surveillance society is now. I have often used this ‘fact’ myself. However, Aaronovitch decided to find out where this ‘fact’ has come from and eventually discovered it was, in fact, fiction. Yet we all believe it, apparently.

Three elements of this interest me:

1. Every journalist I know wants to do good, intelligent and useful journalism, but is constrained by the pressures of time, money and numbers to get stories the truth of which is not always ascertainable in the time or circumstances that pertain. This is bad for journalists, bad for journalism and very bad for society which needs to be intelligently and accurately informed.

2. We are too happy to be gullible and, as media consumers, too easily lose our critical and interpretative faculties. What is often confidently stated as fact is often baseless in reality or given a suggestive slant that affects the way a ‘fact’ is understood. A quick example was also to be found in yesterday’s Times in a tiny piece about the Pope’s nominee for Bishop of Linz. The implication of the piece is that the Pope has withdrawn his appointment from the bishop because he had said Harry Potter was ‘satanic’. Indeed, the bishop had said such things, but that was not the reason his appointment had been rescinded. It was his membership of the ultra-conservative Society of St Pius X, his anti-semitism and the fact that the priests in Linz set up a petition against him that did the trick. So, why the Times piece?

brandedarms3. The Church is often preoccuppied with ‘moral’ issues that are difficult and divisive. yet, one of the biggest moral issues we face in the UK right now is the so-called ‘surveillance society’. Even if the cameras aren’t filming us 300 times each day, so many records are now being kept that the notion of privacy is being slowly eroded. The government wants to keep our phone records and emails just in case. Fear of terrorism trumps all other concerns. And we still don’t learn that in 1930s Germany (for example) while the Church was concerned with sorting out ‘moral’ issues such as sexual behaviour and other ‘corruptions’ they missed the big stuff that was coming in its wake.

Does anyone see ‘surveillance‘ as a moral issue? I think it needs more serious attention that it has hitherto been given by people who find it easier to obsess about sexier subjects like sex. But, I suggest, it goes deeper and will require more attention from serious-minded moralists. Even if we are only being filmed 100 times each day.