Chana Hughes

It’s easy to scoff, but the Schofield story matters

Even television presenters need to uphold the responsibility that comes with their power

June 05, 2023 14:53

Between the terrifying news from Ukraine and the threat of extinction from AI, it’s no surprise that the UK has been completely preoccupied with Phillip Schofield. Perhaps everybody just needs a distraction.

Schofield stepped down from his position as This Morning host after admitting to being unfaithful with a younger colleague and then lying repeatedly about it. Newspapers have been analysing every detail of the unfolding story obsessively ever since. He has been widely cancelled, including being dropped as an ambassador for the Prince’s Trust.

Many people reacted with bewilderment as such an inconsequential story led the news bulletins day after day. If Schofield was a politician, the scrutiny would have made sense. From the backbenchers to the Prime Minister, our rulers make a difference to the lives of millions, so the quality of their judgment and characters is clearly of national significance. But Schofield?

As a non-television person, I know how they feel. But though he is only a daytime presenter, we must not underestimate the influence Schofield has on society. For years, he was beamed into millions of kitchens every day; that alone made him a significant cultural role model. People felt they knew him, and when he was exposed, they felt betrayed. Just look at the acres of coverage devoted to his fall from grace.

The public instintively feels that people of influence need to live up to that responsibility. We rarely stop to think about it, but when well-known figures show they they lack even a basic level of integrity, the public feels it viscerally. Wouldn’t we live in a healthier society if everybody insisted that the nation’s trust deserved to be honoured?

Humans are hardwired to trust others. Neurological studies have found that placing trust in others triggers brain activity in the ventral striatum that controls feelings of positivity and reward. Even at our most cynical, we still implicitly afford power to those who are famous, allowing them to dictate our fashions, mindset and opinions. Our leaders hold our trust. It only seems right that we should expect them not to break it. We need to expect more from those in power.

The Torah provides many examples of leaders who were keenly aware of the weight of public roles. Moses and, some years later, King Saul both initially refused to lead the Jewish people, considering themselves inadequate. When the Israelites were in the desert and the tribal leaders were sent to Israel to scout the land, Caleb, the head of Judah, paused to pray for the strength to deliver a truthful report about the promised land. He realised how much power he held in reporting news to his community and asked for divine help to take this responsibility seriously.

This mindset has even trickled down into Jewish practice. Traditionally, chazzanim, who lead the prayers on high holy days, first make a personal prayer that their words are genuine before they step up to represent the community. Unlike today, when people are fighting for their slice of fame, perhaps our forefathers were more aware of how powerful influence can be and of the duty to use it appropriately. Now that technology has advanced, and our scope of reach is so much wider, it is more important than ever that we hold our leaders to account.

I learnt from my teacher, the late Rabbi Mordechai Miller of blessed memory, that if one student in a school behaves outrageously, it is not only their own fault. Their community around them are responsible too. If their friends and family would have tighter, higher standards, the strength of societal expectation would not allow the outrageous behaviour to even be considered. Our moral standards and expectations are interlinked with others, and our leaders and role models have disproportionately more strength to alter them.

In no way do I condone the media’s intrusive hounding of Schofield these past few weeks. However, I do believe it would be better for us all if we had higher moral expectations of our leaders and role models in whom we place our trust. We do not need behaviour to be illegal to have the confidence to condemn it. If we can criticise people because they have used politically incorrect or outdated language, or for making racist tweets when they were a teenager, why can’t we confidently expect a higher level of integrity from those in power?

Our role models need to be held to account because of the responsibility that they have. We need to be able to trust our leaders and they need to earn our trust. This not only sends a clear message that we deserve to rely on people not to let us down, it reminds us all that honesty and integrity are intrinsically valuable.

Chana Hughes is a rebbetzin and family therapist

June 05, 2023 14:53

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