What can the media learn from previous scandals?
Tonight Channel 4 News is broadcasting a special programme entitled “the past on trial”, examining the failures of the 1970s and 1980s, and exploring whether anything links the cover-ups in the Hillsborough disaster, the Jimmy Savile scandal, and the north Wales abuse scandal.
At times these past few weeks I must admit that I’ve been left wondering what kind of world it was in which I grew up. How did these appalling things go on without anyone finding out? Were people the victims of establishment cover-ups? Were the media at fault for not investigating rumours thoroughly enough?
The past is another country
Certainly I think the 60s, 70s and 80s (and before) were more deferential times. We were much more inclined to accept the word of the police, for example, or to trust the opinion of high court judges. That deference was undermined by many things over the years, not least miscarriages of justice such as the Birmingham Six case and the Guildford Four, or the police mishandling of the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
And we have a much more vigorous and questioning media. British journalism may have been in decline in many ways, as documented by Nick Davies in his superb book Flat Earth News. But overall I would argue that British journalists act as a much more effective check on wrong-doing than they did in the past. Reporters in specialist fields these days, such as those in the parliamentary lobby, are far more aggressive in their treatment of those in positions of power.
In the past political journalists were far too inclined to avoid difficult questions so as not to compromise their relations with those in authority, on whom they depending for information and titbits. One still sees this today in sport, where football reporters, for example are pretty pathetic at holding clubs and managers to account for acts of corruption and mismanagement. Recent events at Rangers are a good illustration, where my colleague Alex Thomson has been much more effective in getting to the truth of events at Rangers, than almost all the football writers in Scotland.
But let’s not be complacent. In all probability the world remains full of scandals yet to be uncovered. Ever since government began it’s been the natural response of those in power is to deny anything is wrong and to cover it up.
Yesterday Stewart Purvis, the former editor of this programme, published a fascinating timeline of how the BBC handled and mishandled the Savile scandal. Just reading Stewart’s account of how the saga unfolded day-by-day in recent weeks shows not just failings at the BBC, but also reminds one of the eternal truth – that when faced with uncomfortable facts and accusations, the frequent reaction of any institution is to deny, first to themselves, and then to the outside world.
And Panorama’s recent programmes on the appalling abuses in care homes, which led to several convictions last week, shows that mistreatment of people in care was not confined to the 1970s and 1980s, or to north Wales – or to sexual activity. No doubt terrible things are still going on somewhere in this country.
The answers? Strengthen and cherish the checks we have in a democracy to hold people in power to account – checks such as the media, parliament and the legal system. Encourage transparency and accountability, but be careful you don’t impose so many rules that they make it impossible for people to do their jobs properly.
But also keep a sense of perspective. Don’t overreact. Avoid the pack mentality. Don’t heap all the blame on a few scapegoats and media ogres.
And, especially when it comes to child abuse, be careful of creating an even bigger scandal by publicly accusing people who may be innocent.
Remember too, that history tends to repeat itself. No doubt journalists in 2037 looking back on 2012 will also be saying: “How did they get it so wrong? People knew what was happening and did nothing about it.”
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