Thursday, 28 July 2011

Atrocity and 'Humanity'

In a Church Meeting discussion last night about what it means to offer a 'radical welcome' to people, someone made the point that we need to be able to see past the labels to the 'humanity' beneath. Stereotyping sells papers, makes complex matters appear simple, and appeases people's own tribal or pack instincts.

Seumas Milne, writing in today's Guardian (, dismisses the arguments of those who suggest that the Norwegian mass murderer Breivik is insane. I'm sure Milne is correct : Breivik had planned his 'political' strategy for years in consultation with extreme right-wing Islamophobic groups in England and elsewhere. He lives in a world in which a moderate Muslim is only a cover for violent extremist Muslims, a world in which any politician who makes a noise that they can construe as being sympathetic to Islam (in the words of columnist Melanie Phillips, whom Breivik apparently quotes at length in his manifesto) is "at best a stupid mouthpiece of those who are bamboozling Britain into Islamisation, and at worst a supporter of that process." (see ) This is the woman that the BBC chooses to put on 'the Moral Maze' - see earlier post - the woman who smells anti-semitism in every critical comment about the Israeli government who nonetheless condemns the British Muslim community for its "inflated and perverse sense of its own victimisation". Am I glad I don't live in her world of stereotypes, labels and conspiracy theories.

I get the same sense of frustration when I read that 'all Christians believe X', 'all Muslims believe Y' - or at least, if they don't believe X or Y then they implicitly support those who do. It's not true. I remember a conversation I had with a respected Jewish rabbi who was telling me about a series of inter-faith conferences he attended. Within a couple of hours of assembling, the conservative and fundamentalist Muslims, Jews and Christians would have gathered at one end of the room, and the liberal-minded ones at the other. If Breivik hadn't been a "white Christian" fanatic, but born in Pakistan instead, he would have been a fanatical Muslim mass murderer. The skin colour and religion is just an excuse, irrelevant in itself. Every religion has verses in its scriptures that can be pressed into service to justify mass homicide, provided they are taken in isolation. You don't have to be insane to become a fanatic - just have . . . I don't know . . a profoundly low self-esteem, coupled with an inflated ego, a touch of an inability to see things from others' perspective and perhaps mostly an addiction to conversations that fuel that tribal sense of heroic self-righteousness (which I'm sure must be quite enjoyable and addictive).

Seumas Milne might have noted that the Guardian's immediate initial response to the atrocity as soon as the news broke was to identify the likely perpetrator as an Islamic extremist. Ironic that the same evening as the killing, the English Defence League firebombed a mosque (in Luton, I think) and daubed it with slogans. According to Melanie Phillips, as a white Christian I must be an apologist for such acts - irrevocably tainted as I am by racial and religious association. In fact it is people like her who are the apologists, not only for the EDL and the Breiviks, but for the Islamic fanatics too.

The problem with looking for the common 'humanity' in each other is that 'humanity' can be - as we see - both beautiful and gracious but also disgusting and brutal. There are choices to be made all along the line about what constitutes 'humanity' - something that I believe is a fundamental weakness in the (secular) Humanist project. For me, I'm inclined to follow the Quaker advice to 'look for that which is of Christ in everyone'.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Murdoch's only doing what comes naturally - it's the politicians who fail to govern that should 'consider their position'

There is no such thing as 'business ethics'. The essence of business is making money : that's all business is. We shouldn't complain too much if a business like News Corporation scours the gutters, abuses human rights and bribes policemen to beat its rivals in the marketplace. Like a cat with a bird, it's only doing what comes naturally. We're dealing here, not with human beings, but with what the Apostle Paul called the 'principalities and powers' (Ephesians 6:12) :

"We are not fighting against humans. We are fighting against forces and authorities and against rulers of darkness and powers in the spiritual world." (The 'rulers of darkness' are not humans like Rupert Murdoch; these are 'spiritual' forces, beyond any single human.)

Any ethics in business has to be supplied by human beings. Yes, we can hope that the human beings employed in the business have ethical standards and apply them. Realistically, though, that isn't going to happen unless ethical behaviour is rewarded. It has to be rewarded from within - the people at the top must define the ethical position. In News International that clearly doesn't happen and hasn't happened for a long time. Rebekah Brooks is absolutely implicated. Murdoch's (and her) ethics are 'do what is necessary to make money'. He and his underlings don't need to instruct junior journalists to hack voicemails. They don't even need to know they're doing it. As long as those journalists could be confident that they would be commended for anything that steals a march on rival newspapers, some of them were bound to do it - like the soldiers that torture prisoners because there is a top-down culture of impunity. Or like the famous assassins of Thomas à Becket, who overheard the king wishing his Archbishop dead, and murdered him on his own altar steps. The king - according to the story at least - had himself whipped through the streets of London as a public penance. I can't wait . . .

Of course, every purchaser of the Sun and the News of the World has also rewarded Murdoch's empire with their custom. The 'customer is always right' in business. As long as someone is prepared to buy gutter journalism, gutter journalism will exist. But it's not realistic to hope the market for gutter journalism will dry up, any more than it is realistic to hope that people like Coulson, Brooks and Murdoch suddenly see the light.

So if it's too much to hope that media moguls in a competitive world will behave ethically, because it's too much to hope that their market will dry up, who will supply the ethics?

Isn't that what we have politicians and judiciary for? In fact, isn't that almost their sole function?

What we have had for the past thirty years is a political culture of hand-washing and avoidance of responsibility.

The old Tory ideology is "You can't expect the common people to know how to run a country. The best people to do that are those who already know how to run a country estate, keep the peasants employed and all that." In the 80s that culture changed and went downmarket. Now it was big businessmen who were likely to be the best at running things (except, of course, they did that so well they shifted most of our manufacturing industry to the Far East because it was more profitable). That meant the only real big businessmen left in the country were the financiers. And how the Blair government feted them! Now of course we know that the financiers weren't terribly interested in running the country either - much more interested of getting as much of their tax liability offshore as they could.

In this whole sorry mess, then, the real culpability lies with our political leaders for failing to govern - for failing to do the job we put them there to do. For failing to supply the ethics to a fundamentally unethical world of business and finance - in fact, for doing the exact opposite and transferring responsibility for governance on to them. And alongside them - and this is a tawdry story yet to fully emerge - stand the police. It seems pretty clear that investigations into phone hacking were blocked at a very senior level in the Met. And unless it was just one rogue policeman passing on phone numbers (like it was 'just one rogue journalist' Mulcaire) I expect to see heads roll at top level in the Met - a police force that's shown itself stunningly short of ethics in recent years and tried to spit out the only Commissioner who showed signs of having any.

400 years ago, bloody civil war fuelled by religious bigotry led to a separation of the power of the Church (the Rupert Murdoch of its day) from politics. Well, theoretically. Now it is time for an enforced separation of powers between politics and big business and finance. Rebekah Brooks shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the gates of Downing Street - or Cameron's dining table. All MPs - or if not that, at least Cabinet members - should automatically be required to resign from their business interests.

And David Cameron, rather than Rebekah Brooks, should be the one 'considering his position'. We need a clean sweep and a culture change at the heart of British politics.