Wednesday, 29 February 2012

In praise of lynch mobs

I've expressed my glee at the Leveson Inquiry more than once. It's becoming a parade of shifty liars from all walks of life, from the police to politics to journalism, being exposed for behaviour they thought was 'normal'. If only Anthony Sampson, author of Who Runs This Place? was still alive, he'd have revelled in this stuff.

What we're seeing is the democratic deficit in action: élite interest groups' hegemony as its practised - the cosy worlds of deals and handshakes in which the reasonable expectations of citizens come a very distant second to the convenience of the Establishment. The revelation that the Metropolitan Police lent Rebekah Brooks a horse ('I'm going hacking'. 'OK, we'll lend you a horse'. 'Er… yes, that's the hacking I meant') is a hilariously symbolic example of the wider corruption which to them would never have appeared to be corrupt, because it was just 'business as usual'. Brian Paddick's testimony that the Met's PR department saw its job as suppressing bad news (in this case, the force's dire record on rape investigations) is a perfect example of the tribal, politicised taint indelibly associated with what should be a 'service'. The Met has become yet another centre of power playing a game with and against the government, the press and the people, in which convenience and influence often outweigh considerations of justice.

Simon Jenkins, the Guardian's tame upright Tory radical, wrote an interesting piece today about his decreasing cynicism about Leveson. Viewing it initially as a whitewash, he's become convinced that the Inquiry now serves a more profound purpose:
Where I was wrong was in underrating the cruel virtue, just occasionally, of subjecting all unaccountable power to a "show trial". As with Chilcotand Blair's Iraq war, the judgment matters little. The value lies in the public staging, in the pillory, the humiliation. It is still badly needed in the case of the banks.
British politics has frequently got its hands dirty by whipping up mob hysteria - the Gordon Riots spring to mind - but I think Jenkins is right: some symbolic blood-letting is long overdue. I actually don't think that the Leveson Inquiry impinges much on the popular consciousness beyond the Milly Dowler hacking: how can it when the Mail, Sun, Express, Star and other guilty papers have done their very best to avoid covering it? But occasionally society's need a period of taking stock, of moral outrage: the great liberations of the 60s and 70s were once such occasion, and Jenkins is right that we're due another. The press, the bankers, the way in which major corporations have defrauded taxpayers while depending on tax-funded activity (schools, transport, education etc), the cosy relationships between companies like A4E, health privatisation, the revolving door between politics, the civil service and client companies, obviously the banks, the toxic co-dependence of politicians and the press… these things are both so complex and so obviously morally wrong that we're beyond the stage of stern words from retired knighted judges. It's time for national humiliation: bankers and Murdochs should be jeered on the streets. The prisons should be filling up with white-collar fraudsters. Lamp-posts should be bearing 'strange fruit' with pinstriped skin.

Will it happen? Of course not. A few sacrificial victims will be offered, such as Fred Goodwin's knighthood, but there's no Establishment taste for a cleansing of the Augean stables - our political leaders are personally, ideologically and culturally incapable of offering any structural critique of this sclerotic society. They can't conceive of an alternative capitalism, and alternative to capitalism, a public sphere which behaves disinterestedly, a politics not in thrall to vested interests.

The question is, can we?

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