Parliament ought to learn from the BBC
And so one of the primary offenders in the public sphere, Russell Brand, felt obliged to resign. The other public offender, Jonathan Ross, has been suspended for three months and effectively fined £1.5 million. And behind the scenes, the Controller of Radio 2, Lesley Douglas, has honourably fallen on her sword. Cranmer had never heard of her, and probably never will again. But her guilt is manifest. If she listened to the recording and approved it for broadcast, she displayed an astonishing lack of judgement. And if (more likely) she approved the programme without listening to it, she is guilty of a dereliction of duty.
Is it not heartening that those responsible for this debacle have either resigned or been sacked? Responsibilities have been taken seriously, punitive action has been taken, and the Controller of Radio 2 has displayed an admirable integrity.
There was a time when Ministers and Secretaries of State would resign. Ministers of the Crown are supposed to be responsible for (1) his/her private conduct; (2) the general conduct of his/her department; and (3) acts done (or left undone) by officials in his/her department. In the age of political integrity (which was, let us face it, under a Conservative administration), ministers would resign (or felt obliged to offer their resignations) over events quite outside their immediate control. One thinks of the junior British Foreign Office Minister, Richard Luce, who resigned in 1982 along with his two ministerial colleagues, accepting personal responsibility for the Argentine invasion of the Falklands. He said, “It is an insult to ministers of all governments, of whatever colour or complexion, to suggest that officials do not carry responsibility for policy decisions. Ministers do so, and that strikes at the very heart of our parliamentary system.”
And then there was Willie Whitelaw and his sense of personal failure when the Queen had an unexpected visitor in her bedroom at Buckingham Palace. Responsibility for the breach in security was evidently several tiers beyond him, and the public was not demanding his head, but he felt, as Home Secretary, that he was ultimately responsible.
And then list goes on: Keith Speed (opposition to Government Defence Estimates), Nicholas Fairbairn (Glasgow rape case non-prosecution), Lord Carrington, Humphrey Atkins (with Richard Luce, over the invasion of the Falkland Islands), Nick Budgen (opposition to Government plans for devolution to Northern Ireland), Cecil Parkinson (revelation of affair out of wedlock and pregnancy of mistress), Ian Gow (opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement), Michael Heseltine (failure of Government to support European bid for Westland Helicopters), Leon Brittan (complicity in leak of Solicitor-General's letter on Westland Helicopters scandal), Edwina Currie (inaccurate remarks on risk of salmonella from eggs), Nigel Lawson (role of Prime Minister's Economic Adviser), Nicholas Ridley (offensive remarks about Germany), Geoffrey Howe (Government policy on Europe), David Mellor (revelations in a libel case of acceptance of hospitality from PLO officials), Michael Mates (giving a watch to corrupt businessman), Tim Yeo (revelation of extra-marital affair and pregnancy of mistress), Earl of Caithness (suicide of wife), Michael Brown (revelation of affair with man under the age of consent), Tim Smith (acceptance of money for asking Parliamentary Questions), Neil Hamilton (allegations of acceptance of money for asking Parliamentary Questions), Allan Stewart (confrontation with anti-road campaigners), Charles Wardle (opposition to Government policy on immigration), Robert Hughes (revelation of extra-marital affair), John Redwood (decision to challenge John Major for Leadership of the Conservative Party).
Even if some of these were actually innocent, they understood that they were perceived to be sufficiently tainted in the public eye as to seriously compromise their functioning in government.
Contrast this with the present Labour administration. The extra-marital affairs of David Blunkett or John Prescott were not deemed relevant to their functioning at the highest levels of government. Looking back over the period since the war, a great cultural divide between the Conservative and Labour parties becomes apparent. Not a single Labour minister has resigned since 1945 because of his or her sexual behaviour (even the homosexual Ron Davies resigned for losing his ministerial briefcase in his ‘moment of madness’ on Clapham Common).
No matter what the issue, no matter how serious the consequences, there are very few who take responsibility. One thinks of the Iraq war, the ‘dodgy’ intelligence, David Kelly’s suicide, numerous accounts of lost data disks in the departments of health, defence or transport, Ken Livingstone’s anti-Semitic remarks, the SATs fiasco, the failure to deport illegal immigrants, peerages for cash. The list goes on.
Instead of doing the honourable thing, the tendency is to hide behind quangos, unelected bureaucrats, appointed individuals, contracted companies (not to mention the elephant in the room - the EU). And even if, as a Minister of the Crown, they were personally responsible for appointing the officer in charge or awarding the contracts (or surrendering the sovereignty), still they cling to office, protesting their innocence. Those who are directly accountable to the people are no longer the one's taking the decisions which affect people directly, and one might therefore understand the public's increasing disillusionment with and detachment from the political process.
There is no doubt that the Ross/Brand affair grew out of all proportion. But insofar as the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition both decided to enter the fray, both demanded action at the highest level, and both contributed to the media lust for blood, one might expect the BBC to demand the same standards of integrity and swift(ish) managerial decisions when members of the Government and Opposition fall short of the standards expected of those in public life. The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition must manifest the highest integrity and act swiftly when ministers and shadow ministers are found wanting.
Unless, of course, they are simply hypocrites.