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Don’t blame cynicism, blame a slide in ethics

The director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, is usually canny and sure-footed to the point of dullness when being interviewed but, on the Today programme this week, he allowed himself a moment of mild levity.

Giving an advance puff to a speech he was to make, he argued that the BBC had an important role to play in the matter of the erosion of public trust. It was not sleaze in public that caused distrust so much as the fact that those in public life were not trusted to tell the truth. Not that scepticism was always justified, he quipped: a significant number of people believed, for example, that the Government was covering up the facts about extraterrestrials.

It would be an objective of the BBC to reach this benighted public, so easily lured into distrust, and to restore its faith in institutions and public life. Thompson promised a “multimedia portal” to reach secondary schools and on the main channels several “multiplatform set pieces” looking at particular issues.

A small, subtle shift of emphasis is taking place here, taking the boss of the BBC close to the position adopted not so long ago by Tony Blair. The cause of distrust, he is arguing, is a new general mood of knee-jerk cynicism – remember those extraterrestrials. For their part, the media – Blair’s “feral beasts” – are too quick to pump up the volume. The result is a culture of civic sourness and doubt.

The theory, which lets the institutions off the hook, has one great flaw. The public distrust is invariably justified. No fluff about extraterrestrials can disguise the fact that very often those in public life do lie, the system does quite often seem morally unreliable. To outsiders, it is difficult not to reach the conclusion that, in many institutions, an ethical slide has been taking place. It does not quite justify the unambiguous term “sleaze” but it is still a bit whiffy, slightly off. A habit of low-grade dodginess has set in.

Among the bizarre revelations about Peter Hain and his fund-raising, the revelation that over the past few months he has cheerfully plugged and praised the big, aggressive supermarket Tesco, which happens to be a leading client of Hain’s lobbyist Steve Morgan, seems peculiarly depressing. Big business and government may have to work together but when this kind of small-time back-scratching goes on, can politicians be surprised at public scepticism?

Meanwhile, over at the National Audit Office, which, by its own description, “scrutinises public spending on behalf of Parliament”, an expenses bonanza has been taking place, another feral beast has discovered. Recently NAO officials took 10 Croatian guests to lunch at Gordon Ramsay’s Knightsbridge restaurant, Petrus. The bill was £1,600. The NAO’s boss Sir John Bourn was playing his part, too, claiming £365,000 in travel expenses and £27,000 in restaurant bills over three years.

So it continues. At the Tate, artists who are also trustees have been benefiting from the gallery’s investment and support of their own work to an extent kept under wraps until it was sniffed out – again the work of a feral beast. Yet another senior policeman has been caught breaking the speed limit, driving at 118mph in a BMW, has tried to use his position to avoid charges and has come up with a story which was disbelieved by a court.

Self-interest, the cutting of corners, the general placing of personal advancement over public duty: with these forces at work in our public life, it will require more than a few multiplatform set pieces from the BBC to restore trust.

Please don’t feed the tigers…

Because my great uncle Terence was killed by lions in Norfolk, I have always been interested in large, dangerous animals who are kept in captivity.

All the same, I shall not be visiting Paradise Wildlife Park in Hertfordshire where customers can, in return for £160 (£180 on weekends), feed and stroke two of their tigers. Alternatively, £150 will enable visitors to “get up close and personal with a wide variety of our animals” over the course of a day.

It will probably take an incident in which someone gets up too close and personal to some miserably imprisoned creature for the truth to become too obvious to ignore. This is no way to treat wild animals.

* These are difficult times for those educated at Wellington College. Once, by ancient tradition, the headmaster – grandly known as the Master – was a grey, begowned figure who surveyed his kingdom with small, disapproving eyes. Now the Master, Anthony Seldon, pops up on the media, writes political biographies and broadcasts serious thoughts on the state of society.

It was Seldon who abandoned another Wellingtonian tradition, that of instilling misery and boredom into teenage boys, and replaced it with happiness classes. Now he has struck out against the very root of the public school system, privilege and class division – or “apartheid” as he rather excitedly describes it. The solution to this great evil turns out to be for public schools to put money into state “academies”.

Here at last is respect for tradition. Down the generations, public schools have done good works, usually in the East End, as a way of showing the world they have a conscience. It is a well-established way of maintaining the status quo.