My mama, we’re all feral now

A list of “the great and the good” from Philip Pullman to Caroline Lucas MP via Polly Toynbee has written to the Guardian to demand a public jury of 1000 ordinary people drawn at random to opine upon the doings of a supposed feral elite that has brought the country down.

The public jury would have a year to report on the following questions:

  •          Media ownership and the public interest
  •          The role of the financial sector in the crash
  •          MP selections and accountability
  •          Policing and public interest
  •          How to apply a ‘public interest first’ test more generally to British political and corporate life

This is troubling and silly in equal measures. Troubling because these are or should be the things that our elected representatives in Parliament look at. They are things that are all being looked at (apart from the final broad one about having a more general public interest test). The three crises cited, the banking crash, MPs’ expenses, and criminal activity by the press have hardly been ignored. The trouble is that the answers that might come out are not necessarily the “right” ones for the signatories to the letter so, one elite of public figures doesn’t trust the answer that a different elite they identify, comprised of people like judges like Lord Justice Leveson, might give.

In practical terms, the proposal is also incredibly silly. Putting together juries to spend a fortnight sitting in the local Crown Court is hard enough – many people look to get out of such jury service. Even amongst those who have not found a good reason to get out of jury service there is some selection – it is usual in fraud trials and other cases involving close analysis of documents and detailed scrutiny of numerical data for judges to provide jurors who feel they have difficulty with such tasks with the opportunity to step down. If the people’s jury is meant to be truly representative it will need to find a thousand people who will be given no excuse or reason to get out of what would be a very complex analytical job.

Tens of these will have gone to prison (the signatories are unlikely to agree with the majority of the public and Parliament who would curtail the democratic rights of prisoners). Tens of them will have supported the BNP. A quarter or more of them will have read and liked the News of the World or other News Corporation publications. Most of them will have left school with few qualifications. Few will read or agree with the Guardian. Many of the apparently most marginalised in society will not even be eligible for selection because they have not registered to vote or returned their census forms. I’m sure that the signatories would be aghast at the idea that the people’s jury would be able to take a broad-brush approach which did not depend on careful consideration of evidence. The role of the proposed secretariat in managing the people’s jury would ultimately give the officials assisting it the greatest power. Who would ensure that the secretariat’s work did not have an influence on the direction taken by the people’s jury?

In a room of a dozen people who have had a few days together it is usual for a one or two to take the lead in the debate. Building a consensus is manageable in that environment even if on occasion juries are split and are directed to give a majority verdict. How does one build consensus around a thousand random strangers press-ganged into a year’s service on topics which many of them might simply not have that much interest? Cut down the numbers too far and the idea of the sample being representative enough to be a people’s jury fades, but even at a thousand most constituencies in the UK would not get two people on to the jury. I doubt that I would be seen as representative of my next door neighbour and know they would not be representative of my views but we have a lot more in common with one another than we might do with the majority of people within the same city.

There’s further silliness in that there’s also a strong likelihood that even if a people’s jury could work and not turn into the world record holder for cat-herding, the answers it would come up with would not be anything at all like those the great signatories would want. The majority of people in the country would like the death penalty to be restored for serious crimes. Most people will simultaneously abhor miscarriages of justice and heavy-handed policing while condemning the Police and Courts for being too weak on “obvious” criminals. It is everyone’s right to look at these issues quite independently at the time they are presented but doing the necessary balancing is sufficiently intractable to make Home Secretary one of the hardest jobs in government. Even suggesting that such balancing can be done or that there may be differing degrees of severity within certain categories of crime in considering what should be done in practice is provocative, as that hardened Minister, Ken Clarke found out recently.  

The majority of people in the country will rarely have spent a moment thinking or caring about who owns the media (I’d wager that a reasonable proportion would not even be particularly aware that the BBC is state-owned or that Channel 4 received licence fee money or to have an opinion on whether this is a good or bad thing let alone which media group owns which newspaper, TV or radio stations other than a guess that it might be a Murdoch one). Even a couple of years after the start of the financial crash there were significant numbers of people in the North East who believed that Northern Rock was brought down by Robert Peston. I’m pretty politically engaged but don’t have the vaguest idea how most political parties select their candidates for election, nor do I particularly care about how parties that I don’t support do this. MPs may have very full casework loads but large minorities in their constituencies don’t know who they are let alone have asked them to do anything; I know plenty of non-apathetic people who have opinions on political issues and who vote but are somewhat vague about which particular constituency they live in let alone the name or party of their MP.  

A genuinely randomly selected thousand person jury could quite conceivably conclude that the BBC should be privatised, the Police be given substantially increased powers, the presumption of innocence be replaced by an inquisitorial judicial system that doesn’t have its hands tied by procedural niceties like not knowing about defendants’ criminal records, and Parliamentary candidates be selected like the people’s jury, forming parties only after election. This is no less likely than that it would conclude that foreign billionaires should not own newspapers and the Police should be prevented from taking firm action to investigate suspects by stronger human rights laws.

The point is not that these weighty issues are too hard for ordinary people to decide upon, but that they are already decided upon by ordinary people through the systems that already exist. It would be a surprise if the Leveson inquiry found that there was nothing much wrong with how newspapers have operated. It would be a surprise if it was concluded that nothing much needed doing to regulate the financial services industry (particularly as great changes to the regulatory system are already underfoot). It would be strange if political parties thought that they did not need to work harder to gain support for their policies and to work on getting the most effective candidates and policies that were most likely to be effective in achieving what they thought best for the country.

Just as the notion of a feral underclass pushes the buttons of the readership of the Daily Mail, the Express and other “right wing” papers, the idea of a feral elite is obviously appealing to the “liberal” readers of the Guardian and Independent. In both cases a group of other people, people not like “us” is to blame. If only “ordinary” people could shine the light of common sense on to things. It is a plea at least as old as Winston Smith’s hope that the Proles in Nineteen Eighty Four would throw off the strictures of the Party.

However, the public interest is too broad and too hard to pin down to an uncontroversial and objective definition. Decisions in the public interest are always subjective and to a degree arbitrary: .  Changing the institutions so that a public jury takes over from Parliament and the Courts doesn’t make any particular sense in practice because there is no reason why it would come to any better answers or be any less subject to human prejudices and vices.

We are all feral and we are all civilised. The unrepentant casino banker is no more representative of the population than the unrepentant benefit fraudster but most people have more in common with both than they would like to admit. However much anyone bar the saintly would like to believe that they live entirely altruistically, everyone lives to some extent selfishly. That’s why politicians and pundits run the risk of exposure for hypocrisy – we ask them to hold up a standard which we know we don’t meet ourselves and when we punish them for being equally capable of vice (or perhaps just a little more than us because of the opportunity we gave them) we like to pretend we aren’t criticising those aspects of ourselves we are less proud of. We disagree with one another. Why should we trust random people to come up with the right answer any more than people who we have chosen or people who have worked to build up the knowledge needed to make hard choices? How could we dissent from what the people’s jury concluded when we had decided to turn ourselves over to its judgement knowing and intending that they knew no better than us?


7 thoughts on “My mama, we’re all feral now

  1. I agree but how do we create a system that doesn’t need a major crisis to provide a check? The potential for disaster in all three areas you mention was well understood before each turned into a disaster, but there was no will or no means to deal with it before things came apart. Next up – the cartel in energy prices and the deaths of an increasing number of people who simply cannot afford to heat their homes. I’ll predict that will provoke a crisis within two years. Of course the Government could take it on now, dealing with the cartel, the energy market and weak regulation, but it won’t. It will wait for the crisis.

    • The government of the day could deal with things pre-emptively. The mechanisms are already there. Unfortunately, perhaps, the general public would prefer it to be dealing with today’s problems. It comes down to prioritisation and our willingness to take present hardship in exchange for solutions to future problems. Being mildly provocative I’d suggest that a lot of people are seriously unwilling to take present hardship to solve present problems let alone those which are more remote eg the movement against public spending cuts. In some areas, after a long struggle to win the case things start to change – eg on climate change most of the measures being taken are long term ones which have large present costs and minimal present benefits. However, when you press down on one thing another pops up – trying to restrict or reverse climate change may have an impact on the costs of energy which would impact on people who are in fuel poverty.

      • Assuming you believe that the price increases are an attempt to get people to consume less, rather than say private companies exploiting a poorly devised and regulated energy market in the UK.

        I think the lack of pre-emptive thinking is more to do with conflict avoidance than anything to do with dealing with public concerns about other issues. Taking on the banks, the media and your own colleagues to avoid far greater future pain? Nein danke.

      • Price increases aren’t an attempt to reduce consumption but underlying cost increases will in part stem from actions to reduce use of non-renewable energy.

        Conflict avoidance by politicians is built into any system where delaying decisions so that they get dealt with by a future government or a different Minister is so easy to do. The fact that eg the bulk of the hacking being investigated was during the time of the last government has gained surprisingly little traction. There was and remains more interest in Cameron having appointed Coulson than in Gordon and Sarah Brown having been absolute best buddies with Rupert Murdoch’s closest family and Rebekah Brooks. You can hear groans from the audience every time a Coalition MP raises the “but all this is because of stuff Labour did in government” line.

    • Quite agree with much of what botzarelli writes, markelts reply and many others input here;

      My view is that the UK doesnt need an elected liberal-elitist cabal to dictate – with glorious hindsight – that their lilly-livered attitudes have left the public to fend for themselves yet again.

      Who I would support are; those that shake the tree right now in seeking-out those in public-office driven by personal gain rather than the defence of democracy. With raised standards in responsibility when in public office, much higher levels of law enforcement than exist, thorough immigration controls and much more. Including, applying taxation to the monopolistic commercial enterprises equal to that expected from the electorate.

      Moreover, the nation expects thorough scrutiny of energy companies price levies because it is actually *our minerals* that they are extracting and then selling back to us.

      Back to the point. Anyone can be bright with hindsight. It is however, the unblinkered public that has the foresight.

  2. And yet, a lot of it has been known about for some time. It just needs the right conditions in which to flourish. For instance I think Popbitch was carrying the story about Rebekah Brooks’ gift of a phone to Sara Payne a few weeks ago and of course Hugh Grant mentioned the Milly Dowler thing in a New Statesman (?) article months before everybody went bananas about it.

    I do believe the energy prices thing will come to haunt somebody in a big way, if the timing and conditions are right.

    • It is an interesting question why now is the time when a lot of things are coming out or being pursued even if known about for some time. Perhaps it is just that people think now something might be done about it as both the government and opposition are in the unusual position of being new and in the process of throwing off past associations – the Tories have been out of government too long for much to be laid at their feet without it sounding too much like “it is all Thatcher’s fault”, historic and personal closeness to Murdoch/Brooks etc weren’t enough to land them a majority but now they are in coalition with a party that never relied on tabloid support and Labour are frantically trying to detoxify themselves. Both major parties are tainted to a similar extent but have not had the benefits that pandering to the tabloids gave their predecessors so maybe people sense that they could be tempted to bite the hand that feeds.

      Not sure about energy prices – Ofgem certainly has the power to investigate a cartel, to take strong action against it and it also has the inclination to do so if for no more altruistic reason than to justify its own existence. It might just be one of those markets (petrol prices in the Scottish Highlands and Islands being another) which looks wrong but actually has rational and defensible economic reasons for being the way it is. The government could, of course, scrap feed in tariffs, renewable heat incentive and other such measures and replace them with fuel subsidies for all those in fuel poverty so that everyone can afford to heat and light their homes. This would provide a strong incentive to task Ofgem with setting much more stringent price caps and investigating allegations of cartel/abuse of dominance behaviour. Environmentalists would be up in arms.

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