A little knowledge

So now Nick Clegg is in trouble. It seems he knew something “non-specific” about Lord Rennard.

For those of you who don’t have the faintest idea who Lord Rennard is, first, welcome to the club, and second, we should be ashamed of ourselves because as the ex-chief executive of the Liberal Democrats he was a man of some significant influence. Be quiet at the back. Lord Rennard has been accused of sexual misconduct (and, for the record, has staunchly denied everything). Of course, because Nick is the man we’ve all heard of, the story is already not about whether Lord Rennard actually did anything, but about whether his boss knew anything about it.

So Nick did know, something, at least, and his statement is going to make him the latest in a very long line of people who know more than is good for them. Bishops and dodgy priests. Accountants and their fraudulent clients. Army officers and their murderous subordinates. And it’s not always those in charge, either. How many people knew about Libor-fixing and didn’t like it but still waited for someone else to come clean? Why is the whistle-blower in the hospital or the prison or the the BBC or the police station always blowing the whistle about something that’s been going on for years? Why aren’t we all whistle-blowers? It’s not just Nick trying to keep the boat steady. Everyone’s at it.

Too much knowledge brought down a president but the reality is that it happens everywhere and all the time and it makes for a fascinating Venn diagram where “turning a blind eye” and “covering up” intersect with “knowing where the skeletons are buried”. And is there possibly a fourth circle, where what you know is, after all, no more than rumour? Where going public with your concerns doesn’t feel like putting an end to an outrage, but more like putting your own career on the line and probably libelling an innocent person at the same time? Because what turns out years later to be an open-and-shut case was never so clear-cut at the time. That’s the way the Lib Dems seem to be spinning this particular story. That’s been the excuse for so many who didn’t quite know about Saville. And anyway, weren’t we all taught, from infancy, that telling on your friends is somehow dishonourable?

So for all our outrage when it turns out people have known something and done nothing, how many of us would have behaved differently? There seems to be a cultural shift underway now, where whistle-blowing at work is seen as a positive thing.

But still, there’s something ingrained in most of us that stops us running to teacher, “grassing up” a colleague or manager. Children today are being taught that this is nonsense, though, that there’s nothing wrong with going to the authorities if you’ve something to say. And maybe, finally, when today’s kids have grown up, all those dangerous scraps of knowledge will be unlocked.

(And in the meantime, please share this article on Facebook or twitter.)

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