How to cure the world

Two unconnected stories have grabbed my attention.
First, a rape investigation unit in South London encouraged at least one woman and possibly more to retract rape allegations, apparently in order to improve their cleanup stats. The Metropolitan Police, as outraged by this as they should be, are nonetheless confident that nothing like it could happen now, because sex crime investigation has come under the authority of a single central unit since this occurred. Excuse me while I raise my eyebrows. There. Done.

And then there’s Nick Clegg and Lord Rennard, a scandal which may not be a scandal at all and which seems to have been going on for months already even though it’s been just a few days. What caught my eye in particular was Nick’s comment, on LBC radio, that not long after Lord Rennard was confronted over his behaviour, he resigned from the party. Nick didn’t actually say it, but the implication seemed to be that this was job done, someone else’s problem, nothing more to worry about.

Again, I’m not convinced. If the man’s a pest, you’ve just released a pest into society and not told a soul about it. If he isn’t, you’ve let him go with a great stinking cloud of rumour and innuendo following him around.

These two stories got me thinking of all those mighty edifices and institutions to have been caught doing what they oughtn’t over the last few years.

The food industry.
The banks.
Our MPs.
The press.
The NHS.
Sports authorities.
The armed forces.
The BBC.
The Liberal Democrats.

I could go on.

The list of groups that have let “us” down ranges from those we never much trusted anyway to those we thought had sworn an oath to look after us. And that’s just the UK. Corruption is spreading from organisation to organisation and no one seems to have a cure.

As Brits, we can live with incompetence. We’re not unused to things going wrong because the people who were supposed to make them go right just weren’t quite up to the job. Poor transport infrastructure. Declining industrial might. We might shake our heads and demand change but it’s indignation more than rage.

It’s when we find that the reason things have gone wrong is that someone was lying or cheating or committing fraud that our jaws drop. After recent years, we should be used to this kind of thing, but we’re not. Because we still have, in spite of everything, an innate trust in institutions that even all the recent scandals can’t entirely shake. (Not all of us, it’s true, but the majority).

The argument we always hear is that it’s a few bad apples. Maybe that’s true. When Iraqi detainees get beaten to death and the whole sickening episode is covered up we seem to accept this; why shouldn’t we believe the same of the Libor-fixers, the doctor-gaggers, the phone-hackers, the duck-moat builders, the abattoirs, Auntie, the old bill?

Because it’s gone too far, that’s why. I’ve never been one for conspiracy theories, mainly because I’ve observed that the capacity of human beings to screw things up accidentally on a colossal scale is far greater than their capacity to execute dark, nefarious deeds. But what I’m starting to realise is that maybe their (our) incompetence isn’t enough to stop them. I still believe in the bad apple theory, every last time, but I believe there are more of them than we like to pretend. And I no longer trust the people tasked with keeping them in check, with making sure they don’t infect the whole barrel. The Malcolm Tucker character may be the exception rather than the rule, but surely no one believes any more that it’s anything other than his brand of politics that holds sway. If that’s what happens in government, why shouldn’t it happen everywhere else?

I’m not pointing at any one institution. I’m not pointing at any specific person or group of people. But big institutions have lots of people in them, and some people are bad, and lately it seems that the longer someone spends inside one of the institutions, the more likely they are to excuse poor behaviour from a bad person, as long as that person is one of their own. And when someone else, a third person, sees a colleague misbehaving and a manager not doing anything about it, maybe they start thinking the ill behaviour isn’t so ill after all. They don’t tell anyone. They indulge, a little, themselves. The canker spreads.

What can we do to change this? You can’t regulate everybody, all the time, and even if you could any regulator as big and powerful as that would end up learning the worst habits from the very institutions it was supposed to keep in check. So more centralisation, the solution espoused by the Met for rape investigation, doesn’t seem to be the obvious answer. You can go the other way, instead. You can try to make everything smaller, decentralise, de-federalise, the call of the centre-right worldwide, and maybe that would help, but I have a sneaking suspicion we’d just end up seeing lots of little rotting barrels instead of a few big ones.

No. We have to start from the beginning, at the root, with the three individuals: the first one that misbehaves, the second one that lets them do it, the third one that sees all that and doesn’t blow the whistle.

Start with the third person. I’ve written recently about the lip-service we pay to whistle-blowers, about how today’s adults still see informing, for want of a better word, as somehow dishonourable. But today’s children, it appears, are being taught something different. Hopefully tomorrow’s adults will know better.

As for the second person, we can start by teaching managers everywhere, in every form of public and private service, that their first duty isn’t to their company or department or their team or their colleagues or the bottom line or the project. It’s to society.

And when the first person sees he can’t abuse the patients or beat the detainee or fix the rates or fondle the juniors or fiddle the expenses or horse the beef or hack the phone or rape the fan without his boss sacking him and his colleague calling the police then maybe, just maybe, he’ll think twice about doing it in the first place.

update: the Guardian make much the same point here but horrific as those crimes are, I think limiting the issue to sex crimes risks missing the key points altogether.

and another update, again from the Guardian – which gets half the solution, at least.

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