Jo Cox: The murder of a public servant

What one MP's death reveals about how the media portrays government workers

This week Apolitical is not reporting on anything. Instead, shocked and angered by the killing of British MP Jo Cox, a public servant and our friend, we want to talk to our readers about the broken trust that allowed this outrage to take place.

Leaving aside speculation about the individual responsible, it is apparent to everyone that politicians and government can rarely have been so generally disparaged as they are today. The latest Ipsos Mori poll on trustworthy professions in the UK found that there is none the public thinks more prone to lying than politicians.

It found that only 21% think they can be trusted to tell the truth. That means that four out of five people think they cannot. The second-bottom category is ‘Government Ministers’, closely followed by estate agents and journalists.

In the US, the most recent Gallup poll found that only 8% of Americans – fewer than one in ten – consider the ethical standards of congressmen and women to be ‘high’ or ‘very high’.

Jo Cox Bartley station

Jo with some of her constituents

Yet all we hear and know about Jo Cox shows that she was dedicated to the common good, determined in advancing the causes of her constituents and serious about that most undervalued of virtues: public service.

How can these two things – this public mistrust and personal devotion – sit together? Was Jo simply an exception? Well, yes, she was exceptional, she was extraordinary, but she was not unique.

Every day of every week, we at Apolitical speak to public servants like her: people with commitment, talent and integrity. But these people are not presented to the public. Instead, politicians and civil servants, the ‘mandarins’, ‘bureaucrats’ and – in that depersonalising phrase – the ‘dead hand of government’ are ceaselessly lambasted and denigrated in the media of both right and left, and, as many commentators have pointed out in the past week, if you keep injecting poison into the body politic, eventually it well get sick.

It has got particularly unhealthy in relation to the debate about Britain’s possible exit from the European Union. Toxic contributions to an already inflammatory topic have brought out some of the darkest and most fervently held opinions in British society. But politicians were not more trusted before this debate began. The poll figures for last year are no higher.

We at Apolitical believe that the breakdown of public trust in government stems from a failure to personalise the vast machinery of the state, to see that the people in the local councils, in the ministries or in parliament are simply that: people, some of them bad and selfish and self-aggrandising, many of them good.

Things are less bad for civil servants than elected politicians. The Ipsos Mori poll found that 59% of the public believed they would tell the truth. They are accused less of mendacity than of incompetence, lethargy and pedantic attachment to pointless rules.

We believe that this is in large part because the public have no idea what government does. The undeniable opacity of government leads people to think of it as a machine, then to be furious if it malfunctions. They think of there being 440,000 civil servants in the UK, rather than 440,000 people who make sure that hospitals have medicines, schools have teachers and we have the freedoms and privileges that are so familiar they have become invisible.

We do not want to suggest that there are no reasons for the public to be angry or unhappy about the way our countries are run. Effective government is tightly focussed on the concerns and opinions of citizens, not on an assumption that the state knows best. Jo herself was killed on the steps of her constituency surgery, where she had come to talk to the people she represented.

But nothing could be less helpful than to continue to hold the people addressing those problems in such low esteem. If we continue to demoralise our public servants in this way, we risk turning accusation into reality by discouraging good people from entering government.

Jo Cox

Jo talks about British values at a local school

So what is to be done? One of the finest responses to Jo’s murder was the Twitter hashtag #ThankYourMP, with which Britons thanked their representatives. As citizens, we need to find a means of thanking and celebrating all our public servants, not just the ones who are elected.

In our journalism, we need to extend our idea of how we hold government to account. It is of course crucial to our democracy that we do so by pointing out government’s flaws and failures, and the scandals, wastes and inefficiencies that undeniably exist.

But journalism can also hold government to account by showing what is possible, by highlighting the best work and the people behind it. The old dictum says that ‘happiness writes white’, but the Solutions Journalism movement shows that we can write probing, clear-eyed pieces about what’s working. We do not need to lionise or flatter to give public servants recognition when it is due.

ThankYourMP Jo Cox

Some of the tweets under #ThankYourMP

In our politics, the most obvious response comes from Jo’s own work. She was a leader in bringing more women into the public sphere, and was working with one of our co-founders on ways of convincing a broader spectrum of people to serve by running for public office, and so bring the people in government and the people outside it closer together.

And 1,500 parliamentarians from 40 countries have signed a pledge to uphold her memory, saying in a joint statement, ‘Let this be a turning point for us all. Beyond politics and parties, we must as societies stand together to stem the poisonous rising tide of fear and hate that breeds division and extremism.’

The slogan adopted at yesterday’s memorial to Jo was #moreincommon, referring to what she said in her maiden speech in parliament: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than that which divides us.”

We as citizens need to realise that we have far more in common not just with one another but with our public servants. Our society has to grasp that those in government are just like the rest of us, imperfect, stressed, commuting, eating sandwiches for lunch, spending too much time on their phones and getting tired in the evenings after work, but engaged in a daily effort to improve our lives.

(Picture credit: Facebook, Wikimedia Commons)


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