Power in Britain is distributed widely and erratically. Yet on the whole we report and scrutinise decisions, events and public personalities on the assumption that most power is concentrated in the hands of politicians in general and ministers in particular. Around the clock, politicians are held to account, even though most of them wield virtually no power at all. If anything happens anywhere, the instinct of the media and the gladiatorial parliamentary culture is to hold the Government to account almost alone. Weak-kneed elected politicians feel compelled to respond.
And thank fuck for that, even if the mendacious bastards just lie through their teeth all the time.
This form of robust accountability is largely healthy. To reverse the proposition and argue that elected figures should not be held to account would be deranged. But the consequence of an excessive focus on mainly insecure, scared politicians has led to a distorting lack of accountability in relation to non-elected institutions that wield power with anonymous, and often unjustified, self-confidence. Few voters had heard of the senior bankers who were leading them to the edge of the precipice until it was almost too late. And yet the likes of Sir Fred Goodwin, who steered Royal Bank of Scotland towards catastrophe, had far more power than most elected ministers who were regularly attacked on the front pages and summoned to explain their timid, powerless behaviour at 8.10 am on the Today programme.
It is healthy. And Richards skirts around the very edge of the real problem here. But being a lefty, he can't face the truth of the matter, because it would totally uproot his weltsanschauung.
Similarly, only now is more intense scrutiny being applied to the activities of the Metropolitan Police and the quality of some of its senior staff. The accountability of the police is highly sensitive and complex, but some senior figures in the Metropolitan Police have sheltered under convoluted lines of scrutiny. Both the Mayor of London and the Home Office have theoretical powers, while police retain operational independence. In fairness, the head of the Metropolitan Police is a public figure and extensively scrutinised, but it was alarming to watch the Home Affairs Committee interview a former assistant commissioner, Andy Hayman, and a current holder of that rank, John Yates. How did such cocky mediocrities rise to senior posts, ones that gave them responsibilities for handling the threat of terrorism? No elected minister would get so far up the Cabinet in the way that unimpressive duo rose up the hierarchy of the police. The media and parliamentary scrutiny would have exposed their different flaws long ago. Yates wields more power than most ministers, and Hayman used to.
So close. So very close. Will he grasp the nettle? Of course not!
Some media organisations, but most specifically Rupert Murdoch's, have become the most extreme example of this trend towards unaccountable power. Murdoch rarely gives interviews.
Disaster neatly averted. Attention diverted to the bogeyman du jour.
So, let's talk briefly about senior figures in private companies being held to account. In essence, that is what shareholders do. Sometimes it's difficult depending on the structure of the shares and who holds the shares, but in general, any company with a public shareholding is compelled by law to allow shareholders with even a single share to propose motions and argue against actions taken by the company, to vote against the appointment or reappointment of directors, etc. In general, if the company is making money, shareholders will be happy. But there will always be people with particular bees in their bonnets and companies are legally obliged to hear them out, no matter how blatantly vexatious they may be. I own some shares and every year when the AGM comes along, I get to vote, democratically, on things that shareholders and directors propose. I always take this seriously and I always vote, because it's my money that's at stake.
People being interviewed by the press is a load of bollocks for accountability. The only reason an exec would ever voluntarily agree to an interview is the chance to raise his profile and that of the company he works for. It's true that occasionally some senior exec will be shredded by the press, but it's usually a sacrificial goat situation, not that the company is being held to account as such.
Murdoch doesn't do interviews because he doesn't fucking need to. He owns newspapers, he doesn't need to raise the media profile of his company and he's rich enough not to need to raise his own profile. So let's just park the stupid idea that the press (or anyone else) needs to, or even can, hold executives to account.
The real issue that Richards skirts around here is the real unelected, unaccountable power in the country. He touches on it with the police, but inevitably he pokes at a couple of people, rather than the systemic failure.
It's true that the police wield lots of direct, unaccountable power. Don't ever piss a cop off, because they can make your life a fucking misery without you ever being able to prove it or stop it.
But the real problem, the thing that Richards cannot face or admit to is that the entire civil service is stuffed with faceless, unaccountable people who have power at various levels and degrees.
Stalin was partly right when he said that it doesn't matter who can vote, power rests with those who count the votes. But in Britain's completely fucked political system, the power does not rest with the elected policy makers or even the vote counters, but rather with those who get to implement (or not) those policies.
Ministers propose legislation at the broad brush level. The nuts and bolts of implementation can align with the intent of a policy or completely undermine it. The people who decide how and when a policy get implemented are completely unaccountable, completely hidden from scrutiny.
Another fine example of how unaccountable people in state employ are can be found in the latest issue of Private Eye (issue 1292), where the saintly NHS is exposed in how it hides avoidable deaths and punishes those who try to expose its failings.
It is true that journalists do terrible things in pursuit of stories. But it's equally true that they do these things in response to a demand from the general public, who are desperate to read disgusting tittle-tattle. So I do not really subscribe to the current froth of high-minded criticism of journalists. They wouldn't do those things if they didn't sell papers as a result of them. And crucially, newspapers do not fuck up thousands of lives every year or kill 25,000 people a year needlessly.
Belatedly, a strange sort of enforced accountability is taking place as parliament reasserts its right to stand up to non-elected institutions that function in the dark. Some commentators suggest that this is a sinister development, possibly leading to excessive political interference. Such fears are unfounded. How can it be sinister when those we elect challenge lawbreaking by a non-elected organisation?
Two words: parliamentary expenses. What do you say now, Steve? Or do you think the MP's got an unfairly rough ride there?
We need to know a lot more about the activities of bankers*, powerful business leaders, senior civil servants, police and, of course, what is happening behind the closed doors of media empires. This is a story about who runs Britain, and as light is shone we discover horrors. The light must not fade again.
All our public institutions deserve much tougher scrutiny than they get and at all levels, not just the police or "senior civil servants". And I wonder if the "media empires" will include the saintly Independent.
But of course, this will all blow over, much as the expenses scandal did. We can always count on occasional tweets and press releases from MP's moaning about IPSA to reassure us that they are learning their lessons and that they're never going to do this kind of thing again. Until the next time.
(And if you're that fucked off about what News of the Screws did, why are you railing at them for supplying something that millions of people paid to read week in and week out? Why aren't you attacking the people that wanted those dire little titbits?)
*Banker bashing. Yawn.