With the Leveson Inquiry raging on, it was with enviable timing that Ian Hislop made his opening shot at today’s bankers in this excellent documentary on financiers’ morality. If it really is true that bankers’ reputation “has fallen below that of estate agents or even journalists”, things must be pretty dire indeed in the City.
Ian Hislop: When Bankers Were Good (BBC Two) sidesteps the usual palaver over whether over-complex financial instruments, a lack of government regulation or perhaps capitalism itself are to blame for the current crisis, focussing instead on the personal attitudes to wealth and charitable giving of the (mostly) men running the show.
Hislop clearly believes that current bankers had a lot to learn from their Victorian predecessors. The lives of philanthropic Victorians from Samuel Gurney, founder of a formidable family-run Quaker banking dynasty, to Angela Burdett-Coutts, for whom no cause was too small to be deserving (British Goat Society included), were enthusiastically chronicled in the programme.
In a further piece of fortuitous timing Hislop spoke with Giles Fraser, formerly St Paul’s Canon Chancellor until becoming an unlikely victim of the aggrieved campers on his cathedral’s holy doorstep. “The city has to have a much greater sense of responsibility for the world around it” declares Fraser, probably not imagining the health and safety concerns now being employed by the City of London to evict the protestors.
Hislop made for a thoughtful, amiable host throughout, showing none of the brittleness for which his appearances on Have I Got News for You or his editorship of Private Eye are known. He clearly enjoyed himself recounting anecdotes like that of Lord Nathaniel “Natty” Rothschild’s birthday, when the banking giant’s act of generosity in giving a shilling to every child in the nearby town of Tring was rather exploited as townsfolk shipped in young cousins and friends from across the country.
It is certainly heartening, if unlikely, to imagine that some of the City’s pinstripe-clad finest might have been watching and taking note of precedents set by the Frys and Peabodys of centuries past. But as Hislop admits, it is not simply society’s morality which has changed since the Golden Age of Philanthropy.
Early bankers were relatively free of the taxation which funded the welfare state from the twentieth century onward, shifting the noblesse oblige from society to government, and were frequently guided by powerful religious mores.
Still, a bit of embarrassed soul-searching within the Square Mile probably wouldn’t go amiss.
This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday 22nd November 2011 – see here