Right back in the book of Exodus, in parashat Pekudei, we have the example to follow – the text shows Moses providing a detailed account of how the precious metals that had been donated to build the mishkan were actually used. Bible- usually so concise- gives a lot of space to what is essentially the auditor’s report. We learn from here that the use of public money must be transparent and accountable – even Moses must explain – and Talmud tells us “A person should not give a penny to the communal charity purse unless it is under the supervision of a person [as honest as] Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon” who famously made up monies from his own pocket when he confused two charities (BT Avodah Zara 17b)
The Nolan principles, the ethical standards for those who work in public life include integrity, accountability, openness and honesty. We know that decision making and public spending that is for the public good must be accountable and honest. Society works best when organised around the free flow of information, and the remuneration of people paid by public money must be part of that flow. Already the exposure of pay gaps that are only down to gender has embarrassed the BBC and their willingness to address this unfairness has been accelerated only since it has been known more widely.
But I would go further than this. On the principle that one should not put a stumbling block in front of the blind it is important to know not only how our public money is being spent, but also who is spending private money in order to buy political capital. Our media, be it web or print, is increasingly funded by people whose agenda is to shape public opinion rather than objectively report news, dark money is funnelled via undisclosed donations in legal loopholes so that rich businessmen can skew government policy and public opinion in order to become even richer at the expense of the rest of society.
Until we have transparency about how money is spent in the public arena, be it those in public life or the shadowy figures whose money shapes opinions, we risk creating an unethical society built not for the community but for the wealthy. Moses knew it, rabbinic tradition knew it. We know it too. Accountability and transparency are critical in healthy societies. We ignore this at our peril.