Passing the buck: We the public do it well

In today’s i newspaper, Dominic Lawson comments on the current UK phone-hacking scandal engulfing Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. In his article, Lawson lists the people and organisations that are being blamed for having allowed this sort of behaviour by News of the World journalists to have ever been tolerated. He mentions the organisation’s Chairman Rupert Murdoch, the Metropolitan Police, the politicians and the “generally useless” Press Complaints Commission.

Lawson asserts that while the bulk of the blame should rest with the mentioned persons – and rightly so – the ‘market’ for such insidious journalism would never have taken root had the public simply not gone out and bought these papers. He writes:

“Newspapers, after all, are very sensitive to the moods and prejudices of their readers. It was because such papers as the News of the World knew that their readers were much more interested in eavesdropping on Prince Charles’ pillow talk than bothered about how the snooping was carried out, that they felt able to get away with publishing such stories.”

I have heard a range of public reactions to this story. On the whole, people are appalled. Very appalled in fact. But the question that springs to mind is this: Are we the public justified in our “outrage” and “shock” with the way these journalists conducted themselves when we have often been the ones feeding this deadly gossip machine?

Identifying a similar pattern of “public self-exculpation”, Lawson references public attitudes to the recent credit crunch episode and the collapse of the housing market. In that situation, the public often blamed the bankers – and rightly so – who lent too much to people with bad or non-existent credit records, the politicians for regulating the banks with insufficient vigilance, the central bankers for keeping interest rates too low during the boom and interestingly the Chinese for saving too much, the surplus of which swept like a tsunami of cheap credit through the Western debtor nations.

But yet again, the question arises: Who was it that benefited from the cheap loans that were later defaulted on, subsequently squeezing liquidity in the global financial system? It was us, the public! Yes, we all accept that financial institutions took foolish and unnecessary risks which they should not have done and governments were often lax in their regulation of these institutions. But when you have bankers hell-bent on making a quick buck merge with a public that seems willing to abdicate responsibility for its actions, that is bound to serve as a recipe for disaster.

Similarly, journalists able to get away with publishing sensationalist stories will stop at nothing to feed the public’s obsession with the gossip and humiliation of (often famous) people; even better when they can make some money from it! The News of the World journalists involved in this scandal stooped so low simply because they had a public feeding out of their palms, eagerly awaiting the next eye-catching story.

Lawson’s article got me thinking about one of my greatest passions, my country Zambia, and how we as Zambians so often place all blame and responsibility for our country’s ills at the feet of our politicians. We somehow expect them to work miracles that will translate into development – human, economic, justice, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, it is right to expect our elected leaders to solemnly carry out their public service obligations; after all that is why we elect them to public office. However our attitude to our nation’s political process is intricately tied up with its success. If we don’t value, and subsequently elect, leaders of vision and integrity and consistently hold them to account once in office, we as a people will have to shoulder some of the blame in years to come. We have to view the sort of political leadership we encourage now in light of the impact it’ll have on future generations. Each person has an essential part to play in bringing about the change we want to see in our country.

So if the problem is poor civic education in the country, what are those that have been educated doing about it? If the problem is corruption in the police service are we simultaneously complaining about the problem whilst being complicit in such behaviour!?

I personally have talked and talked and talked, as many of my countrymen and women have done, but talk is nothing until it translates into action. So what are we actually doing to change this? I have recently been challenged by the need for my words to become action.

Much food for thought. God help us!

This piece was originally written in 2011.

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