Sunday, 31 January 2016

Lessons from The Exaro Panel Debate - January 27th, 2016

Some were expecting, given the raw emotions and polarisation surrounding alleged VIP child abuse, that Exaro's Panel Debate last Wednesday would be stormy and hard to chair. In fact, it went off quite quietly because this was an audience that responded thoughtfully to some measured and evidence-based contributions from the panellists. It was extended in time considerably because the audience was evidently keen to continue an insightful discussion. 

Esther Baker, speaking for those who have 'survived', perhaps had least to say because she was constrained by the legal requirements of her own situation but she was a valuable corrective to the prejudiced idea that a 'survivor' had to be mentally wonky because of their experiences - far from it in her case. I met one or two other people in her position at the after party who struck me as being perfectly sane and rational after seriously troubling experiences. Robert Montagu, now an author and family therapist, spoke honestly about his own abuse by his 'VIP' father and how child abuse had been embedded as a tolerable norm unquestioned in British elite society. His testimony confirmed me in thinking that, while the particular cases are important, they may be less important than the cultural and public policy problem I have already identified - deferential authority and failure not only at the elite level but throughout our welfare society and within our institutional structures in general.

The two leading journalists, Meirion Jones (formerly a BBC investigative producer on both Newsnight and Panorama) and Paul Connew (a former senior tabloid editor) made it clear that, as experienced investigators, the British libel system and the intervention of big wigs into the law enforcement structure had halted serious investigation in the past. Indeed, what was offered was a picture of a hierarchical structure where those at the top could still undertake acts of impunity in the grey areas of the law and be protected by a legal system that placed the reputation of the few above the experience of the many. The level of historic police 'corruption' (if by corruption we do not mean money and benefits exchanging hands but influence being exerted) in this area was staggering. 

The Savile case was discussed at length. There was damning material - that he was protected as early as 1973, that he would be interviewed by police officers as if he was a minor deity, that he appeared to have had South Yorkshire Police in his pocket (it was claimed that they had even intervened to stop a Surrey Police investigation) and that the early media interest in VIP child abusers came as much from angry whistleblowers upset by the action of their superiors within the system as from victims themselves. The frustration of 'good coppers', contained by libel laws, fears about careers and pensions, undue influence and the misused Official Secrets Act, represent an opportunity for reform but also a problem in terms of their enforced silence that has almost certainly not gone away. This how the system works - using fear and persuasion to keep the 'goodfellas' in line.

The media were not so much complicit in this (though no doubt some at the 'posh end' were) but could not proceed because of lack of evidence. In one case, it was alleged, key files would be 'disappeared' so that a libel action would fail on attempts at disclosure. That was a lot of time and money for a newspaper which is not a charity. We may reasonably accuse newspapers of rank cowardice when faced by serious harms caused to children and teenagers but the libel system protected and protects (less so now) major figures with sufficient resources. At the end of the day, newspapers and broadcasters would have had their reputations damaged when claims would have to have been withdrawn because of lack of evidence with no help for the victims. 

There would have been 'questions in the house', a 'house' whose supine approach to criminality and the protection of its own has become clear with the Janner case. The Whip's Offices are second only to the Churches in remaining ring-fenced from scrutiny. The libel laws were certainly a major and costly deterrent but not the only means of stopping an investigation. Establishment figures (including, allegedly, an attorney general, in one case, writing an untruth to try and stop an investigation) would try to place direct pressure. I say allegedly throughout not out of fear of libel or defamation but because the nature of this system means that, despite the mounting circumstantial evidence of a system protecting itself at the expense of its charges, the way evidence can be managed and manipulated from the top means that it is always hard to say whether any particular claim is true or false. This is why the involvement of independent police investigators is vital - we cannot know what is right or wrong: it is a matter for claimants and those they make claims against and, in law, a police force that takes its job seriously and the DPP and then a court of law. What media pressure has done in recent years is merely help the police to do their job by getting the influence-peddlers off their back and, even then, not entirely. Detaching the police entirely from the political class and the security state should be the number one mission of all of us who care for justice.

So, I am not going to comment on specific cases, past or present. I am told that the entire Debate will be on YouTube eventually so you can make your own mind up (I hope to post the link as a note to this posting in due course) but some general comments can be made. My own conclusion is that this scandal, one that seems to go back deep into history and involve widespread abuse at every level of society, is not so much a case of some major organised paedophile conspiracy (though I am sure we do have self-assisting micro-networks of cruelty and abuse to deal with). What we see instead is a non-paedophile establishment covering up its bad eggs in order to preserve the mystique and power of their institutions and of a wider authoritarian culture in which elite figures (mostly males but also alpha females who have entered the system subsequently) could act with impunity by a form of assumed institutional 'divine right'. 

It is a cultural attitude to authority that is embedded in Judaeo-Christian and Roman values at the heart of our much vaunted but really rather second rate Western culture. Patriarchal is far too simple a term. It misdirects us into gender politics since female higher level executives within the system are just as likely as males to follow this culture of 'omerta' and defensiveness. The older term 'authoritarian' is good enough - not fascist and as liable to be taken up by people who claim to be Left as much as those who claim to be Right. Labour Administrations have behaved just as shoddily as Tory Administrations and we must not forget that the reforming impulse is coming under a post-New Labour Government. The point is that whenever individuals stepped over a moral line, they would have the system coalesce around them to protect the institution represented by the person. The persons in systems simply do not matter. What matters is the system and the person has status and reputation according to the function that he or she performs - the priest is honoured as the representative of God in the parish not as Father X with a penchant for little boys. The system that represents God in parishes across the civilised world will do what it can to protect the priest because that is what Father X has become. The Catholic Church did not come up on Wednesday but this authoritarian mentality derives from its ideology, derived in turn from its deal with the Roman Empire, ultimately translated into Western culture as a whole, into the traditional family and through the feudal prerogatives of the Crown.

It is all a matter of delegated authority being sacrosanct. The subjects of that authority are regarded as problems if they are not willing to accept being tools of authority or if they question authority when it exceeds its apparent moral bounds. Montagu claimed that a past Headmaster at a famous public school beat kids in the nude and that no one would have dreamt of challenging his right to do so. I cannot vouch for that but I do recall a 'master' (there we have it in a word!) at my perfectably respectable day grammar school beating up a 13 or 14 year old before the whole class (and my eyes) and there being no consequences. 'In loco parentis' meant the right to continue the abuse in family life (still, most abuse takes place within dysfunctional families, an intractable public policy issue) as abuse in institutional life - school, chapel, army, workplace bullying.  An elite's authoritarian education inculcated not only the normality of abuse but perpetuated it - no education on how to say no to authority, no commitment to the autonomy of the child and so the adult, no restraints on bad conduct, no one to listen to the victim, no means of redress. The welfare state too, administered by that same elite, was built on authoritarian principles derived from the culture as a whole. Child abuse (possibly endemic in society in any case) was based on an imperial cultural model that was not challenged by but was integrated into the new 'socialist' model as something to be 'covered up' as an inconvenient truth.

The good news is that, while the police were historically an often cowardly enforcement operation for this system in the past, it has since been transformed into a tough agent for independent evidence-based investigation. Other elite institutions, notably the public schools, are also slowly being transformed - the ones, that is, that are not stuck in managerialist targets. There was significant praise onthe panel for both the Staffordshire and Metropolitan Police operations into VIP child abuse currently being undertaken. The rage of the Old Establishment at losing the absolute and unquestioning protection of the police strikes me as at the very root of vicious and provenly false (in the case of Esther Baker) claims about 'survivors' and of the nasty campaigning against those seeking to find the truth (not prove a case) in a mainstream media that has gone into reverse trajectory to the police. The media are (in David Hencke's words) 'schizophrenic', simultaneously lapping up every sleazy tale about noted celebrities and sharing the public outrage at failures of the welfare system yet posturing in defence of individuals already well protected by their own status in society and targeting and diminishing claimants regardless of best legal practice and fairness.

Once we had an investigative media that was interested in exposing bad behaviour but constrained by libel laws and interventions. There was no other outlet (such as social media) at the time for allegations. Now this weak but still willing Press has been replaced by a media that has become supine in relation to the needs of the institutional structures on which it has become a parasite, easily manipulated by skilled establishment lobbyists as well as careless of evidence-based investigation and the needs of justice in regard to claimant protection. When this is all over, the most damaged element in society may not be the 'establishment' (which has the ability if it wills it to reform itself) or the police who may well come out of this with respect and trust renewed. The damaged elements will be those who have not acted or are still hiding in fear of their tattered 'reputations' - the churches (though for some reason, these are still treated with kid gloves) whose moral authority may never fully recover, the welfare system which has let down its most vulnerable charges and the mainstream media which may look increasingly foolish.

In the recent culture wars, the mainstream media required a supine law enforcement system to give way under pressure (as once the police did in the opposite direction), Unfortunately for the media establishment, the police are clearly no longer supine and have no intention of giving up on their investigation though the pressure is on, with the Police Commissioner being given only a year more of his term, partly to get the matter through the May Elections and partly perhaps to set the conditions for closing the thing down if it goes on too long. In fact, the Tory candidate in London Zac Goldsmith has shown interest in VIP child abuse and, though silent now, may prove to be minded to continue the investigation wherever it may lead as a Tory reformer. The position of the Labour candidate seems to be unclear. Indeed, the depressing conclusion may be that the future of the investigation may rest on a Tory reformer defending the rights of the abused over and against a Labour candidate from the Party that is supposed to be concerned about such things according to our political mythologies.

Meanwhile, we see signs that this issue is slowly being politicised as claimants begin to find their voice and may learn to organise. These people tend to be the least educated in society but not entirely - middle class educated victims like Montagu are emerging and there was a call from the floor of the debate for more political action. There is a legislative cause emerging in Compulsory Reporting of Child Abuse (though I remain a little cautious about the pendulum swinging too far in the direction of state intrusion into private life with an ideological agenda attached). It was also clear that the Parliamentary attempt to cover up for Janner, those who did so and (eventually) the role of the Whips Office in covering up vile behaviour amongst Parliamentarians in general is now on the agenda.

This has ceased to be like the Belgian Dutroux case - a worrying single case exposing a probable single network of vicious abusers inside the system - or about the PIE network or about Kincora and the security state in the 1970s and has become a simmering cultural confrontation between Power and those who have some basic moral concerns about the use of that Power, including significant parts of the Establishment itself. This is a classic split in the ruling order. The old guard are attempting very hard to stop discontent amongst the 'elite moralists' spreading into the general population, a population which is, to say the least, confused. Confused in part because some claims will be false and some individuals will be wrongly investigated on weak evidence.

The Establishment (which is simply to be defined as those with delegated state authority or who have the money or networks to influence the State) still has the power to appeal to authoritarian and trusting tendencies in the population, especially the authoritarian working class and the metropolitan 'liberal' middle class who tend to prefer social democratic order to justice for the vulnerable. The case of the BBC is becoming the type case - a case where a trusted institution comes to look frayed at its edges because it cannot understand that trying to delay reports for institutional reasons, trying to mitigate the reporting of its own behaviour and engaging in 'corrective' behaviours that contradict the wider evidence and challenge the process of justice are not things that any institution can get away with easily now. Much of the PR strategy used by the Corporation is out of time and out of place - 1990s strategies for the age when the Sunday Times actually mattered and a certain leading PR could define reputation as 'what they are saying in the dinner parties of London'. The BBC is badly wounded and it can only cling on to Woman's Hour, The Archers, Radio 3, Strictly Come Dancing, Tony Blackburn and Richard Attenborough as its fleet of old dreadnoughts against the inevitable - enforced reform. It actually needs a revolution at the top.

[Disclaimer: I am a Founding Director of Exaro News but one with no influence over editorial policy. The views above and the interpretation of the Panel Debate are entirely my own. When it appears, readers are recommended to watch the debate themselves and come to a view.]