Melanie Phillips

25 February 2013

Cover-up culture and public contempt

Published in: Daily Mail

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You can almost set your clock by it. Whenever a scandal erupts, it’s generally the cover-up that does the real damage, not just to the miscreant’s reputation but over a steadily widening area like a pebble rippling through a pool.

Over the past few months, we’ve had a steady stream of these most unedifying convulsions.

The latest is currently engulfing the Liberal Democrats, with torrid claims of sexual impropriety with a number of women by Lord Rennard, the party’s former chief executive.

At the moment, there is no proof that these allegations are true. But what is incontestable is that they surfaced several years ago. Yet, until last night, we were expected to believe — absurdly — that the party’s high command had remained in blissful ignorance of them.

Nick Clegg has said consistently he knew nothing about them until they surfaced on Channel Four News last week, despite claims by a party worker that he knew about them four years ago.

But last night, he suddenly announced that five years ago, his office had been made aware of ‘indirect and non-specific concerns’ — which his then chief of staff, Danny Alexander, had put to Lord Rennard.

Are we really to believe that Mr Clegg’s office knew about this but that he himself did not, and that Lord Rennard had been asked about only the vaguest of concerns?

The Deputy Prime Minister has surely now made suspicions of a cover-up far worse — and called into question his own probity and fitness for office.

The fact remains that no serious attempt seems to have been made to investigate these claims. Lord Rennard stood down four years ago ‘for health reasons’.

When his health was said to have recovered, he returned — but still without these allegations having been investigated.

So no one was held accountable — neither for sexual wrongdoing nor, if the allegations against Lord Rennard were groundless, for making false claims about him. It was all just brushed under the carpet.

This all bears a remarkable similarity to the way the BBC responded to the Jimmy Savile scandal.

Once again, no one in authority apparently saw or heard anything at all — even though Savile’s rapes and sexual abuse of young people took place on an epic scale over a period of half a century. 

Some people actually saw these abuses taking place in BBC dressing rooms and the like; many others were disturbed by circumstantial evidence and persistent rumours; more to the point, some of these children plucked up the courage to complain about what Savile had done to them.

Yet all were ignored. In the BBC, as in the children’s homes and the hospitals where Savile apparently carried out his hideous assaults, no one did anything at all about them.

Scroll on to the eventual detonation of the scandal and the ensuing near-meltdown in the BBC after Newsnight ditched its investigation into Savile’s abuses and what do we find, even after the Pollard inquiry that was set up to cleanse Auntie’s Augean stables? Why, no one is to be held responsible for any of this. Well, fancy that!

We are told that the incoming BBC Director-General Lord Hall is shocked by the Beeb’s management culture of blame-shifting and in-fighting, where no one takes responsibility for any decision.

Yet, although senior management showed itself so unfit for purpose, only one fairly lowly (deputy) head has rolled. The rest have all been reshuffled into other posts in the BBC’s byzantine structure.

Transcripts of evidence to the Pollard inquiry reveal that the BBC chairman, Lord Patten, has himself played this blame-shifting game.

Dumping from a great height on senior managers and particularly on George Entwistle, the former Director-General, Lord Patten blithely ignored the fact that it was he who was ultimately responsible for ensuring the BBC was properly managed, and it was he who had appointed the hapless Entwistle in the first place.

Even more astoundingly, about 90 pages of the witness evidence to the inquiry were censored — by the very people who we can assume were being exposed in that evidence for their mismanagement or worse.

At least (as far as one knows) no one actually died as a result of the BBC’s failure to act on Savile.

Not so in the Mid Staffordshire Hospital Trust, where up to 1,200 patients died at the hands of the staff.

Many of these patients were elderly and incapable. They were treated with appalling cruelty and indifference, causing a number of them to die in filth and agony, and countless more to suffer greatly.

It is hard to exaggerate the enormity of this mass institutionalised atrocity against the sick, inflicted upon them in the very place that is supposed to relieve suffering.

We now also know that hundreds of aghast staff were prevented from speaking out by being threatened with the sack — or indeed were actually thrown out for daring to protest.

And yet still no one has been held accountable. Complaints about 41 doctors and at least 29 further nurses were sent to their professional bodies, yet none has been struck off.

The Francis Report damned not just the Mid Staffs management but a ‘culture of fear’ from Whitehall down to the wards, as managers became fixated on meeting targets and protecting ministers from political criticism.

Now the Prime Minister claims to be outraged that no one has been held accountable for what happened at Mid Staffordshire. Yet he himself refuses to sack the official who above all should carry the can for this, Sir David Nicholson.

This man was not only chief executive of the strategic health authority overseeing the trust for a period while these terrible things were being done, but he now runs the entire health service that created this ‘culture of fear’.

Mr Cameron has said Sir David is doing ‘a good job’ as NHS chief executive and should not be made a ‘scapegoat’. But the essence of a scapegoat is someone who in all fairness should not bear the responsibility with which he is saddled.

Well, if the person presiding over this ‘culture of fear’ isn’t responsible for it, then who in heaven’s name is?

Scandals are nothing new.  But there was once a time when those whose wrongdoing was exposed or at whom the buck finally stopped did the honourable thing and fell on their sword.

They took responsibility for their own behaviour and for that of those underneath them. They did not either tough it out until they had to be dragged screaming from their posts, nor try to shunt the blame onto their underlings.

Institutions, however, invariably look after their own. As politicians continue to wrangle over the Leveson recommendations for controlling the Press — which, whether underpinned by statute or not, will tie its hands — it is worth noting once again that the scandals over the Lib Dems, Savile and Mid Staffs came to light only because the media dug this information out from where these institutions had tried to bury it.

Yet even now the Lib Dems, the BBC and the NHS are circling the wagons, closing ranks to protect those who should rightly be held to account and struggling to conceal what can still be concealed.

While the political class turns savagely on the Press, shrieking about making it accountable, it is giving a free pass to institutions that have covered up three scandals involving claims of sexual harassment, abuse of children and cruel neglect of the vulnerable.

Is it any wonder that the public now view the entire political class with such visceral contempt and disgust?

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography


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Melanie Phillips
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