The ‘bad apple’ defence is one that has seen a lot of mileage lately.
It was apparently a few bad apple MPs that defrauded the public purse in the parliamentary expenses scandal, rather than it being an accepted norm of behaviour in Westminster. It was one bad apple party treasurer who suggested that donations would buy you Prime Ministerial access, not the Conservative Party for which he worked. It was one bad apple Secretary of State for Defence that let his government activities ‘become blurred’ with personal interest, rather than it being standard practice in the cabinet to look after number one and the people one plays tennis with.
Need I go on? I’ve started so I may as well finish.
It was also apparently one bad apple reporter who hacked into phones – of celebrities, royalty, dead children and grieving families – rather than the now defunct newspaper for which he worked. It was a few bad apple police officers that had racist tendencies, rather than the institution of the Metropolitan Police as whole. And it was one bad apple special advisor that had an all-too-cosy relationship with the multinational media empire, News Corporation, rather than the minister he advised and the government department in which he worked.
Too much? Ok. But you get the point. With such a tired argument, one begins to wonder; are there really so many bad apples, or is there more than meets the eye. Put simply, and into an uncomfortably extended metaphor; should we be paying attention to the barrels the bad apples are kept in?
This question is strong in psychology circles. In 2004, for instance, eminent psychologist Dr Zimbardo of 1971 Stanford Prison experiment fame testified in the defence of ‘one bad apple’ Sgt. Frederick, a guard at Abu Ghraib prison. He argued that few individuals are able to withstand the power of the situation that surrounds them, and that they are more likely to alter their behaviour to conform to the dominant paradigm. According to Zimbardo, Sgt. Frederick wasn’t necessarily a bad apple; he was just trapped in a bad barrel.
So some questions: can it possibly be the case that there are individual bad apples in the media, in the police, in government and in Westminster? Or does a pervasive culture exist in each place to ensure that people conform to what’s expected of them, becoming ‘bad’ in the process? If this is the case, is it possible that the ones caught are only an unlucky few, while others breathe with a sigh of relief that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’? Are they like children who do not see that what they have done is ‘bad’, are unrepentant for what they did, and are only sorry for getting caught?
These questions strike at the shrouded heart of the issue. But the sheer cumulative amount of information and obfuscation – of lies, dodgy memories, cover-ups, and retractions, coming to light in dribs and drabs, by leak and confession – is beginning to make the public suspect that it might be the latter option – the bad barrel option – that is the case.
Were Jeremy Hunt to lose his job tomorrow, or following evidence given to the Leveson Inquiry, it seems likely that Downing Street would dismiss him as being just ‘one bad apple minister’, the only one too close to Rupert Murdoch. This would be, perhaps unsurprisingly, the inevitable response of an establishment with something to hide. It says that the buck stops with the individual and there is honestly no need to delve further, for there is no further case and delving will only reveal best intentions and ethical practice. Honestly. And that it is really and truly the practice of government to represent the interests of the public, rather than those of business… Yeah, everyone else is a little dubious about that too.
Indeed, there is an intriguing mood of cynicism amongst the general public. If they do not see the tendrils of malevolent power snaking through the institutions designed to protect and serve, they sure do sense it, and are looking for change. Not just the usual change, mind you, where the same old apples swap faces, but a change in terms of barrels: the organisations and institutions themselves. After all, as is being remarked in pubs up and down the land, no matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.
For this reason it will be interesting to see in the coming elections how many will vote for the old guard – the purveyors of the status quo, defenders of the vested interests, rotten apples schmoozing in bad barrels – and how many will vote for alternatives – alternatives such as independent candidates and minority parties (and how many will simply not vote at all).
At risk of turning this into a party political broadcast, the Green Party is such an alternative. There are others, but the Green Party is one of the best. They have a long history of transparency in local councils and their commitment to accountability is a matter of pride. Moreover, they’re one of the few parties brave enough to stand up to business interests – and the political institutions they’re vested in – for the sake of people and planet. The Greens don’t claim to have intrinsically more honesty or integrity than anyone else, but they would work to create an atmosphere of openness and public service in which corruption would not be allowed to fester.
So when you vote this week, on 3 May, give it a go: try out an alternative and see how you feel. You know what they say: when life gives you bad apples, make scrumpy. Right?