Why do we find it difficult to stand up and speak out?

01 March 2014, at 12:00am

The Mercury Column, in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

WITH an election on the not so distant horizon, we should brace ourselves for a silly season of politics when structured reason gives way to impending farce in the run-up to the big day.

If, this time, things go as they have in the past we can expect mild- mannered back-benchers to turn into Silverback gorillas and heaven only knows which analogy we might seek for ministers.

Inevitably, the Government will find hitherto untapped hoards of gelt to promise us in return for another chance to finish the job and the Opposition will find a miraculous cure for amnesia.

Like most people, I will find myself carried along, at least in part, with the rhetoric and the transient euphoria of a fresh start. In the end, I suspect that this will all come down to trust and, after the last few years, it will be fascinating to see just how much trust the general public can dredge up from its collective and battered psyche.

Changing governments

There was a time when the Italian people changed their governments with roughly the same frequency as their underwear and, given the political history that led up to the challenges of the 1990s, perhaps it is no wonder that the Italian electorate became completely blasé about their politicians.

Maybe that’s not a problem anyway as, since the satirical cartoons of the 1800s which united voters to change the face of European history in one direction or the other, politicians have occupied the basement of public opinion together with estate agents and now, presumably, bankers.

Estate agents found their place in the pantheon of public mistrust largely because they earned the reputation of saying whatever it took to get the sale and, despite the fact that if that sale were on our behalf and we might have profited handsomely from it, we largely found it easier to accord the murky downside of any financial derring-do to a professional body whose occupation equipped them with the necessary depth of dermis.

Of course, estate agents don’t need a professional qualification to ply their trade because, historically, that hasn’t been a requirement and, rather like politicians and celebrities, they exist because we put them there. This, of course, takes us rather closer to the water’s edge than we might care for because, in all the sordid revelations of the last few years, we’ve not only watched politicians, senior police officers, bankers, media moguls, celebrities and, heaven forfend, members of the Church get away with it time and time again.

We clearly find it difficult, collectively or singly, to stand up and speak out in a society that would appear not only to have lost its moral compass but to have buried it under tons of excrement.

Ours is the society that ridiculed Mary Whitehouse, the teacher from Nuneaton, whose long-term campaign against the permissive society and the BBC and outspoken opposition to social liberalism earned her a CBE but also, eventually, the derision of the nation in another campaign orchestrated by the media to whom she was implacably opposed. No wonder that we find it difficult to stand up to be counted.

A bouncing ball

Recent years have seen Silvio Berlusconi bounce like a squash ball through the Italian state, until finally, late in 2013, the Italian Senate managed to expel him. While Il Cavalieri may be no more, Italy’s government has, yet again, been tainted with corruption and single-handedly, Berlusconi has set back the cause of Italian women by decades.

On one day in January, the majority of national UK TV news was given over to stories of sexual predation on the part of parents, groups of Asian men, internet paedophilia sites commanded from the UK, abuse in children’s homes run by the Church and the sordid antics of a clutch of celebrities.

Bizarrely, I find myself happily concurring with the prosecution of some celebrities while wanting to find that others have been maligned and were never guilty of such a crime. Is it that I too have been duped by the projected personae of those whom I want to be innocent or have they been framed in a flurry of opportunistic greed?

Continuum of change

Probably, the truth lies somewhere along a continuum of social change. For those of us who lived through the 1960s-1970s, social liberalism was a way of life and while I cannot remember objecting to it at the time, looking back, it wasn’t that great!

The expectation of individuals was hugely different, bullying at work was commonplace and the institutional bigotry of The Sweeney or Life On Mars was a normal occurrence. While society didn’t set too much store in respect for individuals by individuals, there was a widespread respect for authority which is why the anti- government protests in the US and in parts of Europe were so noteworthy. 

Not only was sexual equality non-existent, there was very little equality anywhere, so much of the journey that we’ve undertaken over the last 50 years has been worthwhile. 

Now, in today’s liberated society, we’ve embraced equality between gender, ethnicity, age and ability and enshrined it in statute.

Rather like European states enacting orders from Brussels, we seem happy to accept equality in a rather piecemeal fashion and, while we disguise respect behind political correctness, one can see that until very recently, we have been happy to turn a blind eye to a number of dinosaurs along that road.

Where does that leave us today? Perplexed might be a good term but are we motivated to change things? I suspect that human nature being what it is, we will collectively expect others to do that for us as we watch with varying degrees of prurience from the wings.

One major consequence of this journey has been an increasing hunger for trust among consumers. It may be that their behaviour has discouraged many practitioners from wanting to go the extra mile just to find that many clients’ loyalty has been paper thin but 2014 will undoubtedly hold further revelations in the run-up to the election and public trust will become a major issue in the process.

As practitioners, we still enjoy a significant level of trust and we should resist the temptation to cut corners in client service or to seek too eagerly to recoup costs as the economy, and the state of each client’s wallet, improves. 

For years we have been advocating a paradigm shift from supporting elections as one-off community events to supporting the entire electoral cycle – from the design of a country’s legal framework to the implementation of an election and through to subsequent reform processes. 

Perhaps the good news behind all the bad news is that our society is undergoing a reform, not least in the standards with which it chooses to delineate itself. If that is true, the public trust which we enjoy will be utterly priceless.