The Garrulous Jay – Impunity

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Last night I was privileged to attend a lecture by Tom Little KC, a barrister who has prosecuted some of the highest profile criminal cases of recent times, including those of Sarah Everard and Jo Cox MP. His subject matter was, “Criminal Justice in England – How Good is the System?”

It was a fascinating if a little dispiriting talk which perhaps predictably spoke of the chronic underfunding of recent years, which has left the fabric of the criminal justice system profoundly damaged both literally and figuratively.

Little quoted various reports that spoke of the system approaching ‘breaking point’, but he didn’t articulate exactly what would happen if the system actually broke, so I asked myself afterwards how this might manifest itself.

In very simple terms I concluded there would be two probable consequences: first, crime would go unpunished on a significantly greater scale than it already is and, secondly, as a result people might start to take the law into their own hands.

In other words, the disincentives to commit crime would at first fall, and then possibly only be recovered by a degeneration into mob rule. I sincerely hope no government is faced with the challenge of taking the eggs back out of that particular omelette.

But I was then struck by the fact that there has perhaps already been a growth in the culture of impunity in recent years, stoked by political leaders around the world. One could cite ‘Partygate’ in the UK, Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine and a whole litany of the past and potential future President Trump’s actions.

What unites these individuals is a sense that not only will their actions go unpunished, but they will actually be rewarded.

I have written in the past about the critical importance of culture in both business and public life: how behaviour in any organisation is set by the leadership.

No amount of auditing, compliance, rule-setting, governance or oversight will be enough if those at the top of an enterprise send the wrong cultural message in their deeds and words.

This has been seen over the last couple of years in the Metropolitan Police, in Credit Suisse and in the Post Office, to give but three examples. Go back a few years and it also characterised the Great Financial Crisis of 2008-09.

To be clear it does not necessarily have to involve criminality: the way an organisation incentivises its employees may be sufficient to cause detriment to others. Incentivisation is impunity’s less ugly sibling.

My concern, therefore, having listened to Tom Little last night, is that the example set by our political leaders risks further permeating our corporate life.

We all need to be alive to these issues, to lead by example in our own private and business lives, to hold others to account and to do what we can to arrest a trend that may otherwise only gain greater momentum. If we fail to do this we will only have ourselves to blame if we become the victims of impunity.