Institutional dishonesty has become the norm

At the Aldeburgh Documentary Festival on Sunday, Anthony Wall, the producer and director who has been responsible for many of the BBC Arena documentaries over the past 30 years, advanced a rather daring moral argument. The behaviour of society as a whole, and its institutions in particular, tend to reflect prevailing attitudes within its government, he said.

So Birtism whey-faced, distrustful, anti-creative, money-led, technocratic was a manifestation of the grey business ethic of the last Conservative government. The more recent travails of the BBC were directly connected to the behaviour of a government that over the past decade has been obsessed with targets, spin and presentation.

At first glance, this view seems a little harsh. Blaming political leaders for general cultural malaises lets everyone else off the hook. But wherever it originates, the mood of the moment is surely more casually, thoughtlessly amoral than it has ever been. This week we have learned that primary school teachers have regularly been doctoring the papers of their pupils in national tests.

The schools where the cheating has been taking place were, interestingly, not those under threat of special measures from Ofsted but were near the top of their respective leagues a detail which seems to have evaded the general secretary of a teachers’ union who argued that the trend revealed the “extreme pressure” which performance targets put on teachers.

A few weeks ago, Blue Peter was revealed to be a steaming pit of corruption; now primary schoolteachers are at it too. What next? A scandal surrounding a Sunday school’s nativity play? At this point, we might as well admit that the quintessential Englishman of the early 21st century is Arthur Daley.

Institutional dishonesty has become the norm. The idea, once an unquestioned assumption, that working in a respected profession entailed a certain simple, undemanding level of integrity, has been quietly forgotten. If you can cheat, you do. If personal interests are involved, you put them first. If you get caught, you blame “extreme pressure”.

Often it is the trivial instances of dishonesty, rather than spectacular crimes, which are the most revealing. Like the schoolteachers carefully inking over the exam papers of small children, the police officers of South Yorkshire constabulary have just been caught bang to rights colluding in various acts of small, carefully organised deceit. On no fewer than 26 occasions, officers appeared on speed cameras while driving at illegal speeds in restricted areas but evaded prosecution by refusing to say who was driving. Using their privileged position to cheat and lie in a way not open to the rest of us, they managed to keep their licenses clean.

Exposed by Newsnight, with the help of the Freedom of Information Act, the dodgy coppers of South Yorkshire were given the opportunity to admit what they had done with an appropriate level of sheepishness. But this is 2007; there was absolutely no chance of that happening. Instead, the police refused to release the speed camera photographs on the hilarious grounds that the very photographs which had once made it impossible to identify the drivers were now so clear that, if seen by the public, they might cause officers to be recognised and “as a consequence their mental or physical health will suffer”.

It would be good to think that these sweetly sensitive Yorkshire police officers might at least be given a good bollocking by their chief constable Meredydd Hughes, who happens also to be the senior traffic cop in the country. Unfortunately, Hughes has been in a spot of bother himself, having just been banned from driving for doing 90mph in a 60mph zone. After the case, he said he was “proud” to have owned up, because “drivers who know they are guilty should plead guilty”. Before giving us a lecture from the court steps, he might perhaps have mentioned that idea to the policemen working for him.

Why should we expect children to grow up into honest citizens when the very institutions where a glimmer of integrity might be expected to flicker the police, the BBC, schools are guilty of lying, cheating and looking after their own interests? As for the question posed by Anthony Wall where does this dishonesty start? it is difficult not to see a connection between these small-scale acts of deceit and the gruesome dance of the seven veils surrounding Labour Party finances.

In the unlikely event of the ugly, naked truth about those donations being revealed, the cause will doubtless turn out to be “extreme pressure” and any guilty parties treated gently out of respect for their mental and physical health.