When Negative Equity is Social

by The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby

Posted: 18 Jul 2011

The plight of individuals with debts larger than the value of the security that is held for them engages our sympathy, and rightly so. But is there another kind of negative equity that has been at the top of our agenda these last weeks, a kind of social negative equity.

In the middle of the public outrage about the phone hacking scandal (have they hacked into my phone to find out how outraged I am? How do we know the level of public outrage?) there have come to the surface some rather uncomfortable realities that are not being spoken of much.

The fact is that it isn't just News Corp that has a stake in the negative, in the bad news and the gossip; we all have.

Negativity sells well, and we should not be surprised at how much of it there is. The bad news in which News Corp had such a stake is now overtaken by the stake we all seem to have in the maximum bad news about News Corp and its key players. There aren't any disinterested players in all this, occupying some principled moral high ground. There are careers and balance sheets at stake - and not just those of the Murdoch empire. Bad news is a good investment.

Of course in among the rage, synthetic and real, altruistic and self-serving, there are important issues of principle which the enquiries, and then those faced with their recommendations, will need to address: what limitations on freedom actually promote freedom when it comes to broadcasters and the press; what needs to be done to address the tendency of media, like most other commercial activities, towards monopoly; how can privacy laws and conventions keep pace with a technology that advances at a frightening rate, outstripping most of our historic restraints.

But that mustn't stop us asking the self-critical questions. Rejoicing at seeing a media tycoon who till recently bestrode the world like a colossus get put in his place (if he is) is a proper celebration of the fact that the universe is in the end - and often after much delay - a moral place - the psalmist says of the pride of the mighty, 'Thou dost set them in slippery places'; but the psalms also know that there is nobody immune from the need of judgment and mercy. Moral outrage with its large component of Schadenfreude is not in the end enough. News Corp is part of a system that our investment in the bad news sustains.

The witness of faith is to a different, and demanding vision: one in which truth, beauty and goodness are profitable, yield rewards, if not now then later. In part that has to be realised in the lives of individuals: we all have to address the self-interest which taints our outrage. But we can't just leave it there. Systems can, and must, be built in which there are profits to be made (literally) that are not at someone else's expense, in which good news is also good investment. Some of the developments in corporate governance are about genuine sharing, about a system of rejoicing in the good fortune and skilfulness of others in your enterprise.

Those developments need to be transported on to the political stage, so that our neighbourhoods and the air our children breathe, the billboards they see and the headlines they read, are about how good it is that someone has succeeded or that truth has been vindicated.

We shall need, of course, justice systems that deal with behaviour from which society needs to dissociate itself; but above all at the moment, and it is absolutely part of the business of faith, we need systemic rewards for sharing and good practice, for giving credit where it is due and noticing the unnoticed goodness by which we are surrounded if we will only look.

This article has mainly been about ethos, culture, the human heart. But it has been full of financial metaphors - of investment, of credit, of our stake in a certain sort of society. That's not a coincidence: if money makes the world go round then how we arrange our economy will reward - or not - the goodness towards which we aspire.

About this author

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is the former Bishop of Worcester. Following his role as part of the Interim Directing Team from 2012-2014, he continues as an adviser to St Paul's Institute.