4 August 2011

Whether it is a matter of pots and kettles or specks and moats, the Washington Times yesterday  featured a vituperative article about the likelihood of former Illinois Governor Blagojevich, convicted on numerous corruption charges, avoiding a substantial prison sentence.  The Washington Times, owned by News International, has not been a champion of imprisonment for staff on its UK sister paper, responsible for gathering stories through deceit and phone hacking.

Although Blagojevich could be jailed for up to 300 years, the probability is a sentence of fewer than 10 years. Described as the poster boy for everything that is wrong with politics in the United States, the suggestion is that his ‘raping, pillaging, and plundering of public trust’ makes him totally unfit to hold public office.

In what must be unintended irony, the claim is that political scoundrels should get the maximum sentence for any crime they commit; they should be held to the highest standards of conduct and the highest levels of justice. There should be no mitigating circumstances for political corruption. Bernie Madoff is destined to eternal life in prison.  He conned people who should have known better. But, he did not violate the public trust. With a lack of charity characteristic of campaigning journalism,  the article advocates “no pity, no mercy, and no humanity.”

Should a State servant adopt that attitude? What is the fair, impartial, responsible and trustworthy response to an opportunist, purportedly motivated by the common good, but actually the antithesis of the spirit of service? How do you treat a renegade who rejects your code of conduct?

A focus on the right way too readily leads to righteousness. This week’s Ethics Newsline suggested a way out of this “ethics trap” – of  moralising and assertions of rectitude. “Genuine ethics requires humility and grace as much as honesty and responsibility.  Standing for truth counts for a lot, but so does listening for truth.”

A sense of proportion and recognition that we all have feet of clay is a good start. But integrity and transparency are needed to make a difference. They are the essence of the rule of law, respect for the democratic process and the spirit of service. And that is what good government is all about.