Public scandal and the crisis of leadership

By JubileeCentre 22 Oct 2015

dove-703156_640By Guy Brandon, 22nd Oct 2015.
Scandal is nothing new. As long as there have been people in public life there have been people who betray public trust. The greater that trust, the worse the betrayal. Who would have thought that Aaron – a man who worked miracles for God in front of Pharaoh and was anointed as high priest – would ‘break bad’ and create a golden calf for the Israelites to worship (Exodus 32)? Or what about David, who enjoyed such a close relationship with God but fell to the temptation of adultery and murder?

In recent years, though, it seems there have been an unprecedented number of highly publicised scandals. All of these involve a lack of transparency. Some of the more noteworthy ones include:

  • VW (2015) were found to have installed software in their cars that would ‘trick’ emissions-testing machines into recording far lower levels of pollutants than were actually produced in practice.
  • FIFA (2015). Several executives in football’s world governing authority were arrested and investigated for corruption connected with the bidding process for allocating World Cup tournaments, amongst other matters.
  • GCHQ and the NSA (2013). Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed that British and US intelligence agencies had undertaken a programme of covert, illegal and intrusive mass surveillance.
  • Food adulteration (2013). Food sold by major retailers and advertised as containing beef was found to contain up to 100% horsemeat.
  • LIBOR (2012). Traders at international banks colluded to rig short- to medium-term interest rates – which affect over $350 trillion in derivatives and financial instruments, including mortgages and credit card rates.
  • Phone hacking (2011). The News of the World and other major newspapers routinely accessed voicemails without permission to gain stories, ultimately leading to the Leveson inquiry and a series of arrests.
  • Parliamentary Expenses (2009). A large number of MPs were found to have fraudulently claimed for expenses under parliamentary allowances, in particular in relation to second homes.
  • The Church. In recent years there have been an increasing number of cases where the Catholic and Anglican Churches were found to have covered up widespread sexual abuse of minors.

These scandals have permeated every area of life: politics, finance, business, religion, media, sport and entertainment. They represent nothing less than a crisis of leadership in every sphere. After all, what else is realistically left that could have the capacity to shock the public?

The mood that results from such events is one of cynicism and detachment. Public trust is low; voters disengaged. We assume that promises are no longer made to be kept; that every official statement represents the spin-doctors’ sanitised version of a less palatable picture; that a public figure who has not been touched by scandal has simply managed to keep their secrets better than the others. What is the solution to such a wholesale loss of public trust?

There is no easy way to rebuild broken trust. As Warren Buffett said, ‘It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.’ (That’s good advice for someone starting a career, though not much help for someone on the wrong side of a bad decision.)

Since a lack of transparency lies at the root of these, it makes sense to work towards more open and transparent processes; sunlight, as politicians are fond of saying, is the best disinfectant (though there are some instances where biological detergents are also the best disinfectant).

Beyond that, and in the short term, cynicism and disengagement are not the answer – however safe and tempting they may be. Neither, though, is unwarranted trust. When Jesus sent out the 12, he gave them some challenging advice: ‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.’ (Matthew 10:16) He told them to expect persecution and ill-treatment. But, at the same time, they were to retain that childlike openness to others.

It’s a good starting point for us. Productive relationships of any kind involve trust. We cannot entirely close ourselves off to other people if we are to play a part in being salt and light to a broken society. But neither can we be naïve about the risks.


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