Will the City take any lessons from the Games?

The world of finance isn't exactly filled with role models.

With a record-breaking number of golds, London has learnt a key lesson from the Olympics: how to be proud of ambition and success - for the right reasons.

The Games have not just shone a spotlight on sport. London 2012 has made many of us ask ourselves what it is about our own professional or personal lives that we can be truly proud of.

Some say that the pressure to deliver and exceed expectations at the highest level has made our athletes rise to the occasion. We can all learn from them – and nowhere is this lesson more clearly understood than in the Square Mile, where on many desks Olympic screens stood alongside dealing screens.

Allegations of laundering money or fixing rates are just the most recent furores to obscure the City’s reputation. Add in questions over bonuses and concerns about the economic downturn, and is it surprising that some people perceive the City as selfish, self-absorbed, and arrogant? Not exactly role-model material.

Can the City draw on the feel-good factor of the Games?  There is a proper desire among financial services workers to rebuild trust and confidence in the City and what it does. And what is most striking is that some of this work – like that of our Olympians - is pioneered by a new generation. In sport it’s been a whole new parade of heroes; in the City’s case it has also often been young professionals who are keen to inspire others to think and do differently.

Clearly things are changing at all levels of the City - and the autumn will bring clearer evidence of this. But among City workers in their first or second job, one powerful driver of personal change is a new approach to charitable giving. Young bankers, accountants and lawyers are meeting at film events, bars or restaurants, and getting involved in projects and the giving money through crowd-funding pledges from as little as £100 a go – but stretching upwards to much more.

In doing so they are not only delivering social benefits to worthy organisations, they are also developing their own moral compasses – and seeing how they can achieve more than mere financial rewards.

The big change has been that while philanthropy was traditionally perceived as being for those who have retired from a successful career in the City, increasingly a new generation of charitable-givers is embedding the practice throughout their whole career.

With a new initiative, City Philanthropy – A Wealth of Opportunity, which involves the City Funding Network, the City of London Corporation’s City Bridge Trust, and Philanthropy UK, I believe the City is reaching out to create a new climate of giving to deliver social good.

Harnessing the same spirit that has brought us together in the Games, this campaign seeks to create a real step-change in City culture. Philanthropy’s social benefits to beneficiaries are well known – but what is new is the appeal to young city workers of such a meaningful activity which they can embrace throughout their careers. Coming together in this way, young philanthropists can make a real impact – not only through a wealth transfer, but also by fostering a deeper awareness of personal responsibility among City workers.

Clearly changes in the law and its enforcement, in the leadership of banks, and in the process for incentivising effort are all either underway or on their way soon.

But inspiring the next generation in the City to involve themselves in philanthrophy is also part of the answer – and therefore to be welcomed - not just for the success of Europe’s financial hub, but also for the economic and social wellbeing of London and the UK as a whole.

If the Olympics are about anything they are about striving for excellence through effort and with a clear focus on the outcome desired. They are also, famously, about taking part - because of the effect that taking part has on the individual.

Philanthrophy – a good Greek word meaning the love of fellow man – is also about taking part. Taking our part in what it means to be fully a member of the only squad that really counts: Team Human Race.

Tower Bridge. Photograph: Getty Images

David Wootton is the Lord Mayor of the City of London

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder