The Barclays fine is but the latest in a chain of scandals of global significance. In each case, the perpetrators were shown to have sealed themselves into a culture of assumed invincibility over against the rest of us: exposed by the Fourth Estate at its best, and our own anger, but too often rather late in the day.
Over the last few years we have learned a great deal about organisations who thought that they could get away with it. From clerical sexual abuse and the Tailhook scandal in the 1990s, through Enron, sub-prime mortgages, casino banking with our money and, in the UK, the Deepcut affair, the Hutton enquiry, the death of Stephen Lawrence, and MPs’ expenses, through to the phone-hacking and other media revelations driving the Leveson enquiry, great institutions have been revealed to have developed their own secret, profitable and privileged way of doing things, but not in our interests.
Each time we are staggered, then angered, by the selfish arrogance shown by these predatory entities and states of mind. How did this happen, we ask; or, in Cassius’ words, in Julius Caesar, Act 1 Sc 2:
Now, in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,
That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!
Earlier on in that same speech, however, Cassius has provided the answer to the question:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
In banking, it has been what seems to have been almost a total lack of regulation and self-control; in law enforcement and security, the canteen culture nurturing uniformed thuggery in many military and police forces; in the church, a willingness to transgress basic morality; in public life, systematic pocket-lining and simony at our expense.
Circling the wagons, suppressing information or transferring the worst offenders, the institutions fight to preserve their fiefs and mind-sets. In the end, inevitably, they fail.
The obvious common denominator is the willingness of whistleblowers, media organisations and some people in the public realm to dig up the hidden deals, sometimes at great personal cost. A free press and public outrage at emblematic events which start the avalanche – the assassination of Giovanni Falcone in 1992, the death of Dr Kelly, Milly Dowler‘s phone, child care on Jersey – are still our primary defensive line, but one which needs continuous cultivation and maintenance, and heroes for the rest of us.
For our press to be truly free, and for our public office holders to be truly vigilant, we the people need to preserve the faith that undergirds the good society. That faith is constantly under attack, but it must endure and we must empower ourselves accordingly.
Public cynicism about all this has never been higher. Shakespeare again: “I see this is the time the unjust man doth thrive” (The Winter’s Tale, Act 4, Sc 4). That cynicism, which is really hopelessness, has to change if we are to have the right robust control mechanisms in place, properly regulated and policed, with the law on our side, not theirs, and a culture of moral compliance with the common good. In the end, dear Brutus, it all rests on us.