Sir Mervyn King’s recent admisson that he should have been “shouting from the rooftops” about the dangers of the banking system before the 2008 crash seems to add to my theory, written for The Big Issue about the number of influential people now willing to admit the bleeding obvious, after years of making a profit from it.
St Augustine once wrote: “Give me Chastity and Continence. But not yet.” He could have been talking about the political leaders, advisors and financiers who all saw trouble in the way the City was being run, before the subprime loan market imploded. Or about the senior journalists who knew their newspapers were engaged in illegal and immoral practices, but didn’t bother to quit or speak out about it at the time. All were happy to take home the pay cheque. Now they’re happy to express their outrage, often as paid commentators, at what was going on. But when should the lightbulb have gone on in their head? Could they have helped change the culture of their profession by making a moral stand. Or at least questioning it harder at the time?
Ferdinand Mount, has launched a blistering attack on the oligarchs of big business and the corrosion of British democracy in his latest book The New Few, says what most of us think. Banks should be broken up, the excesses of City bosses should be curbed, local government has been disastrously “castrated”, damaging civic life and public engagement in politics. As head of Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit in No 10 in the early years of her premiership, he helped develop policies that stripped local government of much of their fundraising power, a decision, he told me when I interviewed him on R3′s Night Waves in April, “that was only supposed to be temporary”. Could he have done more to prevent the mess we’re in? “We weren’t sufficiently alert to the old human potential for grabbing what you can while you can.”
Terri White didn’t go to Eton and Oxford like Ferdinand Mount, but she had her own role in a major social anxiety. As a young working class woman trying to make it big in journalism, she saw her chance in joining the launch of Nuts — one of the new generation of lads’ magazines that boomed in the early 2000s and pushed sexual explicitness to new extremes, especially with their focus on “real girls”. In a Mea Culpa in The Observer recently she admitted she regrets her participation in normalising that culture. “Would I do it all again knowing what I know now? No. We did too much damage.”
Her light bulb moment, she wrote, with hindsight, was when she found herself cutting the heads off photos of women who’d sent in their pictures, to publish a line up of their disembodied chests for readers’ judgement:
“We told a generation of young women..Just be willing to bare your breasts and look what you could win! A pot of gold! And a footballer! “
That’s essentially what a number of young men thought of the young victim of footballer Ched Evans. He has just been jailed for 5 years for raping a drunken, comatose 19 year old woman. A second man was cleared, but at least one friend had been filming it all on his phone. Now 3 people, including a fellow Sheffield United player are under investigation for allegedly identifying her on twitter (which is illegal) and attacking her reputation (which is not). They are only one of a number of young people who launched a blistering attack via social media on the victim as a gold digging slapper. 3 days later two university students aged just 24 and 19, were convicted of rape, after targeting a drunk 20 year old woman who had fallen asleep on a London bus. One offered to help her home, calling the other on his mobile to come and join him in the rape in an alleyway. It is the casual opportunism that is striking about both cases.
White has the satisfaction of knowing she left Nuts before the circulation of such magazines began to decline. Mount was out of politics long before Fred Goodwin and RBS needed to be bailed out by taxpayers.
Natasha Walter, originally interviewed Terri White, while she was at Nuts, for her book Living Dolls about the return of sexism, more than 2 years ago. She tells me now: “Obviously I’d have preferred it if nobody had ever done that job, but it’s vital that people who did help to create the hypersexual culture are willing to step up and join the debate…The circulation of those magazines has disappeared [but] the audience has just moved online and elsewhere.”
The government recently launched a public information campaign for young men, explaining that forcing a woman to have sex against her will is rape. However complex the social factors behind the rise in rape statistics, I think we could all agree that the need to even run such a campaign is a light bulb moment for us all.