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Public Outrage

Yet another public inquiry is about to get under way in Britain, this latest one charged with examining whether the corridors of Westminster are teeming with paedophiles and whether their heinous activities have been covered up.  The Home Secretary announced the investigation in response to a flurry of whispers and rumours paraded across the media, in which names of alleged wrong-doers have been revealed.  A file supposedly incriminating the guilty men has ‘gone missing, but never mind, everyone knew what was going on – or so these reports would have us believe.

Actually, that first sentence should be read in the past tense, since the new enquiry is designed to establish not whether such things are still going on today but whether, and to what extent, they went on thirty years ago.  Three decades seems to be the time that is allowed to lapse before the British public, or the press, is finally whipped up into a sufficiently frenzied state of indignation to demand a formal investigation.  The 30-Year Rule has become something of a tradition.

Presumably the custom of retrospective outrage is predicated – whether consciously or otherwise may be debated – on the grounds that most of the perpetrators of whatever evil, or incompetence, or dereliction of duty is being alleged, are by then dead, so that reputations will be blemished post mortem – or at any rate at such a time in life when they will be close to past caring.  The revelations of the manifold allegations of sexual misconduct against Jimmy Savile and other popular entertainers, underlines the point.  By the time the complaints of victims were sifted and criminal prosecutions issued, Savile himself was dead.  Others charged with similar offences were cleared on the grounds that the trail of evidence was too cold to be revived.  Those few who were convicted were in their eighties.        

Do other democratic nations share Britain’s predilection for such demeaning soul-bearing?  I have no idea.  But in this country, soul-bearing – and the searing impact it has on its once respected institutions – has become a national pastime, indulged in the name of public outrage.  If nothing else, I suppose, it offers retired judges and civil servants with a last opportunity to have their names enshrined in history – though rarely are the results of these flagellations sufficiently clear-cut to permit historians to reach a firm conclusion.

We may no longer beat the world at football or cricket, but we sure know how to stage a good inquiry.      

I for one have lost count of such inquiries of the past decade or so.  All were supposed to establish the truth of whatever was being investigated, and to ‘clear up the matter once and for all’.  Few have succeeded.    

In that respect, Hillsborough is a case in point.  Despite all the various fact-finding missions purporting to explain the events that caused scores of spectators at a football match in 1985 to die in an uncontrolled crush on the terraces, still no clear answers have emerged.  And still the search for the truth grinds on, with ever-receding clarity, as inevitably the passage of time erodes, or eliminates, the recollections of those who were there. 

We’re still waiting – breathlessly if you believe some publications – for the findings of the Chilcot Inquiry into the events and interpretations that preceded Britain’s decision to join the Americans in the invasion of Iraq.  The long delay in publishing the Chilcot results has now itself become the subject of a searching examination – or at any rate fevered speculation – an inference that the results are somehow being doctored or certain facts suppressed to avoid embarrassing public figures in the run-up to a general election.  In other words, even those in charge of the Inquiry cannot be trusted.

Nobody can be trusted.  The allegations fly, most of them blithely unexamined, and the mud sticks to whatever target at which it was aimed.  The trouble with mud is that, no matter how carefully aimed, it sticks to everything.   

The Lawrence Inquiry into the conduct of Scotland Yard officers during their investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence at a bus stop in south-east London found the Metropolitan Police guilty of “institutional racism”.  This conclusion remains the subject of continuing and increasingly futile debate.  It is sponsored in part by Stephen’s understandably distraught mother Doreen (who has since been given a peerage for her troubles, and uses her seat in the House of Lords as a bully pulpit).  But even grief should have a time limit.  Meanwhile, the Met’s reputation has been tarnished, possibly for all time. 

Ditto the BBC, Savile’s employer during the time of his misconduct. The BBC has been corporately culpable in a score of management missteps and fumbles, but for years it will be tarred with the Savile brush, the other failures forgotten.  The corporation, now under new supervisory governance, as is the Met, may never recover. 

And now it’s Parliament’s turn.  Just recently, a deputy speaker was ‘acquitted’ of an accusation of sexual assault brought by one of his (male) parliamentary assistants.  Where did this alleged assault take place?  In the deputy speaker’s bed, that’s where.  The alleged offence may have been dismissed by the public prosecutor, but the outrage of the public at-large remains unsatisfied.  The man’s career is now over.

As a writer in the magazine Spectator put it last week, “Rarely since the last days of Rome can there have been such a dearth of authority in a society.  One by one, in the lifespan of most people in Britain, the institutions which one defended and epitomised our country have fallen and now appear unable to get up again”.

Jacky Fisher, a First Lord of the Admiralty, regarded as the Father of the modern British Navy, used to build ships designed to ‘strike hard and swiftly’.  

The rule, as applied to our national scandals, now seems to be “strike hard, but for pity’s sake not until nobody will get hurt.”

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