The noble cause of corruption

'In Britain, traditionally, money transactions have been considered vulgar. Privileges have been based on class and relationship'
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The Independent Online

Deprivation is always relative. It drives some of the children of the poor to rob some of the children of the not-so-poor of their mobile phones (it was trainers in the last moral panic), and leads their parents to complain about how the kids have been driven to it because of the consumer society.

So it is, too, among the mullions and gargoyles. When we hear that Pembroke College is one of Oxford's poorest colleges, this does not mean that the Fellows – in threadbare robes – dine miserably on thin broth and bad beer, and that rats scurry around High Table. Pembroke is not poor compared to The University of Luton. But when set alongside the sensual splendour of Christ Church, or the more restrained opulence of St John's, then Pembroke is poor. St John's owns most of St John's Wood, London. If all Pembroke College owned were Pembroke, Wales, then it could not compete.

Some of this may have been agitating the sub-conscious of the chaplain of the college, the Reverend John Platt, when he agreed, in effect, to the admission of the non-existent son of a fictitious merchant banker, in return for a gift to the college of an imaginary £300,000. The gift was to be made via a secret fund. Unfortunately, the prospective donor turned out to be a journalist for The Sunday Times, to whom the reverend correctly predicted, "You must understand that this is absolutely confidential. If this story gets out, we'd all be blown away." The Reverend Platt was, indeed, blown away yesterday, along with fellow Fellow Mary-Jane Hilton, the college's chief fund-raiser.

Despite recent stories about paedophile priests, we still see clergymen and women as – on the whole – the sort of people who can tell right from wrong. Where the rest of us struggle in our relativist quagmires, they come on Thought for the Day and tell us how it should be. So, one wonders, what was the story that the Reverend Platt told himself about the 300k? How did he square his conscience? He did not stand to gain financially; there was no talk of a kick-back, and I doubt that the Chaplain is still allowed a tithe on college income. He would not be lining his shelves with the first, priceless copies of The Tergiversations of Dr Pretorius of Brabant as a result of the deal.

This sounds like what used, in police circles, to be called "noble cause corruption". If the college had more money it would be better able to admit and educate the bright children of Britain, whatever their background. For £300,000 it could improve facilities, offer bursaries and plant a new cotinus in the Martyr's Garden (or wherever). You can imagine, as Michael Beloff, the head of Trinity College, put it, a "Shavian dilemma of choosing between offering a place to a suitably qualified candidate, whose father has promised in return a gift which would be of benefit to generations of students, at the expense of a worthier candidate, who would bring no such dowry in tow..."

But Mr Beloff raised the dilemma, only to dismiss it as "not open to an Oxford Head of House". He went on, "Access is the friend of intellect but the enemy of income. A college can sometimes pay a high price for its pursuit of the path of virtue." It was, however, a price he himself decided to pay. Three months ago a Trinity alumnus, banker Philip Keevil, withdrew a pledge of a £100,000 to Trinity, when Mr Beloff refused to give Keevil jr preferential treatment. "Universities," said Mr Keevil, "have perhaps not yet realised that they can only really raise money from the old members. They have to feel they belong and they are being fairly treated [sic]."

Mr Keevil's expectation is interesting. I don't know how things are at Trinity, but at Pembroke College Cambridge – according to its website – donations and legacies (all given tax-free, naturally) can earn the donor "permanent forms of recognition [including] the naming of Fellowships, Scholarships, rooms and staircases in the College. Membership of the Matthew Wren Society is open to anyone who has notified the College of their intention to benefit the College in their Will." The Matthew Wren Society! Before you're even dead! The Aaronovitch Room has a certain glamour to it.

But that would not do for Mr Keevil. He wanted what a boost for the lad for the sake of the Dad. And a hundred grand, of course. In private American colleges, the children of alumni (or "legacies" as the kids themselves are called) often enjoy great advantages in admissions, and the monies raised are said to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Sometimes money alone does it. I remember that Meadow Soprano, the daughter of fictional television Mafia boss Tony Soprano, had her way into a New Jersey college smoothed by a large sum, backed up (and here Mr Keevil may have gone wrong) with the threat of appalling violence.

The non-fictional Rutgers College, New Jersey, has an Alumni Campus Visit Day "to give children and grandchildren of alumni a better view of Rutgers," a special reception for "alumni offspring" admitted to college, and dedicated alumni offspring scholarships. At the University of Rochester, the college journal tells us, Leah Gallant is the third generation in the family to become a Rochester student. "'Leah is excited to be so well connected to the University of Rochester,' writes mom Patricia."

The mistake made by the Reverend might have been to allow the mention of cash. In Britain, traditionally, money transactions have been considered vulgar. Privileges have instead been based on class and relationship. But even this is dying out now. The good side of consumerism is the demand that everything be known, every party donation and every entrance criterion. Transparency. Fairness. That's what we want.

Nevertheless, the Reverend Platt would be entitled (if he so chose) to point up some hypocrisies. He could start with parents who pretend to be religious so as to get their kids into Church schools, and the schools that, in effect, encourage them in this dishonesty. He might wonder about the so-called travel journalism, in which journalists get expensive freebies and then write about what a marvellous time they've had. I was struck recently by a BBC1 travel show in which a docusoap hero took a massive cruise liner up the Amazon, without once suggesting (as it towered over native villages like a 10 storey hotel) that the entire trip was a ludicrous invasion.

"Ah yes," say the journos, "you don't understand. First off, we wouldn't allow the fact of a free trip to affect what we wrote. Second off, without freebies we wouldn't be able to afford to go, so there would be less holiday writing. It may look bad, but in fact it's good." And my God, how I want to believe this. How badly I want to be sent, gratis and with the kids, to the Seychelles to check out Bird Island for myself. But whatever the result was, it wouldn't be the same as if I had paid myself.

There are myriad other corruptions. The professionals who deploy their argumentative skills to get earlier operations on the NHS or to avoid jury service. The authors who write pleasant things about each other's books in the hope of getting pleasant reviews back. The product placement in television shows and Hollywood movies. In all kinds of ways, our ethics are constantly challenged, and we often fail.

Most of these failures do not even possess the justification that the disgraced Reverend Platt, in my imagination, could use to exculpate himself. The noble cause, all too often, turns out to be us. And that's all.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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