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Scandal-prone Britain: What Can We Learn?

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As the Prime Minister announces two investigations into claims of child abuse at North Wales children's homes in which a senior political figure of the Thatcher era is allegedly implicated, we might well ask what will come next. Over recent years, the reputations of our biggest public institutions have been repeatedly undermined by scandals: phone-hacking, indefensible relationships between politicians, the police and the media, the Hillsborough cover-up, the fixing of the Libor rate, the near-collapse of the banking system, Parliamentary expenses... In the decade since the Hutton Inquiry, the BBC had seemed able to rise above the fray until the Jimmy Savile affair dragged the corporation down into the mud, taking with it a host of other public institutions including hospitals, children's homes, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

The implications of this series of scandals are significant. These institutions - politics, the media, the police and banks in particular - are crucial in any democracy, but each depends heavily on public trust. Yet that trust has been undermined again and again by the scandals of recent years, meaning that all lack the credibility they need to be truly effective. It therefore seems important to ask why modern Britain seems prone to such scandals, and what can be learnt from them.

One theory might be that we have become hysterical as a society, reaching too quickly for the word 'scandal', calling immediately for inquiries rather than accepting that institutions and people within them will never be perfect. But think back to the scandals of recent years: the hacking of the phones of families of murder victims and the war dead amongst thousands of others; the unchecked abuse of hundreds of vulnerable young people in public institutions across the country over four decades; the death of ninety-six football fans and the attempt to cover up the truth by discrediting the victims... The term 'scandal' does not seem unwarranted in any instance.

Another argument could be that our generation has different standards from those of the past, and that we are retrospectively holding previous generations to account using those new standards. Some have argued, for example, that Jimmy Savile was able to commit his crimes in part because of the social mores around light entertainment in the 1970s which do not exist today. But it was only in 2009 that a CPS review into allegations of Savile's crimes recommended that no further action should be taken and the Newsnight report into his behaviour was canned last year. The Parliamentary expenses, Libor and phone-hacking scandals all relate to activities which occurred in recent years, and which might still be occurring now had they not been exposed. These are not simply the skeletons of another era.

Why then have we seen so many scandals in different institutions in such quick succession? There is perhaps only one trend which runs through them all and which may help us to learn lessons for the future: in each instance, behaviours which were accepted within closed institutional circles were opened up to the public glare and did not stand up to scrutiny. The circumstances in each case are different: the truth about Hillsborough was finally accepted because of an inquiry forced by the victims' families; the Savile story broke because of an ITV investigation; MPs' expenses because of a leak to the Daily Telegraph; phone hacking because of an investigation by the Guardian, supported by a group of celebrity victims. But however the conceits were exposed, in each case the public found what was uncovered to be completely unacceptable.

If there is anything to be learnt from the series of scandals we have seen in recent years, it is surely about the divide between what our institutions have tolerated and what the people those institutions serve find acceptable. In order to address this issue and prevent further scandals in the future, we need to find better ways to open the institutions up not just to public scrutiny but also to active involvement of people from a much wider range of backgrounds and perspectives than they draw upon at present. Breaking the kind of closed circles in which these conceits have developed is crucial to rebuilding the trust on which our institutions rely, the first small step towards them assuming their proper place in our society once again.