It is more electrifying and unedifying than really mean reality TV. The departed BBC Director-General Mark Thompson and current Trust chair Chris Patten could be kids in Channel4’s fly-on-the-wall series Educating Yorkshire. Come on you two, fess up. Stop this fighting AT ONCE. Oi, you, Markie – stop pulling Christopher’s nose. And you Christopher, don’t provoke him. You’re acting like big babies. Right, on Monday, to the head’s office, both of you.
Real men, we are told, take it on the chin, do not shuffle off responsibility when bad things happen. Truth is they do. The more powerful they are, the more likely they are to do a runner or impugn others without a smidgen of shame. Some masters of the universe, eh?
Chris Patten, grandee and last colonial governor of Hong Kong, reproached everyone else but himself over the Newsnight Jimmy Savile debacle. He hired and fast fired George Entwhistle, a decent man and talented journalist who, new into the job, couldn’t handle the explosive revelations and failures of the corporation. Not the fault of the Guv, none of it.
This July, Patrician Patten insouciantly told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that he was kept in the dark by D-G Thompson about the immoral and unjustifiably high-pay offs to senior BBC executives. The Trust, he said, “would be as interested as you are about why we didn’t know”. Thompson, now the chief executive of the New York Times and a man not to be messed with, has responded furiously in a detailed, long document.
He rebuffs Patten’s insinuations and accusations, claims the Trust was in on the deals, says he has emails to prove what really happened, and suggests the PAC has been misled by chairman Chris and some trustees. Patten calls Thompson’s assertions “bizarre” and denies any part in the huge payment made to Mark Byford, deputy D-G. Before his time, all that. The impression given is it was not his business. On Monday the two massive, combative male egos will be interrogated by the PAC again.
Other top dogs in our country are scrapping and rowing over the Syrian crisis, instead of coming together to help end one of the worst human disasters ever in modern history. Our Parliament was given the right to vote, a virtuous move by Cameron, whose own instincts have always been to go for military intervention. Parliament voted against such involvement. For being a good democrat and responding to public opinion, the PM was leapt upon by snarling party insiders and the implacable right-wing commentariat.
On cue, up popped warmonger Tony bloody Blair, looking for a fight with Ed Miliband for not backing action. Within days Cameron had turned on the Labour leader and his party and those dissenters or abstainers in his own ranks – among them the erudite and personable Jesse Norman. The disgrace for Britain is not that we didn’t go for violence to quell violence, but that after the civilised process of sombre parliamentary debating and considered voting, our manly leaders can’t stop bickering.
The same male squabbles broke out in Iain Duncan Smith’s Department of Work and Pensions. His much heralded “welfare reforms” which promised to save millions of taxpayers’ pounds are badly managed, wasteful and thus far a chaotic mess. So says the National Audit Office (NAO). Does the Secretary of State accept the criticisms or apologise for personal or departmental failures? Is this a serious question?
When he talks incessantly like a manic preacher about the importance of taking responsibility, he means the little people, not the ruling elite. IDS, ex-soldier in Rhodesia and Northern Ireland, is never wrong, never weakened by self-doubts, never admits mistakes. His response to the NAO report is to dump on his officials, and in particular, Robert Devereux, the department’s most senior servant. Liam Byrne, his shadow, then lays into IDS with unseemly relish. The poor people squeezed to strangulation by benefit cuts must watch these combating gladiators and wonder how it helps them.
It’s the same story with tax evasion, financial regulation, policing, risky banking, major failures in public services and government policies. The men in charge pass the buck, make fantabulous excuses, deny wrong doing, argue disagreeably, feel unappreciated and terribly let down by others, act up and never back down. Masculine success means never having to say sorry. (To be fair, a small number of women with power are just the same.) More serious perhaps is the predisposition of leading men to senseless rancour and aggression, even in our House of Commons, which should be a place of dignity, respect and rational discourse.
On Monday, when Patten and Thompson face MPs, both sides need to think about their behaviour and responsibilities as public figures. The people of Britain – to whom they are all answerable – are heartily sick of their macho posturing and lack of humility. The PAC’s chair, tough and effective Margaret Hodge, knows that. Do the BBC bigwigs summoned by her committee begin to understand what the public now expects? We shall see.