Scandalous silence: the dangers of political reticence

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 18 October 2012 in Diary
A look at the dangers of politcians' reticence over scandals such as the Jimmy Savile allegations and Rochdale child abuse cases

When Winston Churchill observed that "a lie gets half way round the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on” he was still in the relative dark ages of dictation and telegrams. If we update his observation we'd have to acknowledge that today a lie can journey to the moon and back before the truth even sets up a Twitter account.

Refusing to recognise a lie can be just as dangerous as telling one. The accusation against some BBC employees, past and present, is not that they lied about child-abuse at the corporation, but that they collectively (and for a host of reasons) failed to see the truth about it over many years. There is a distinction, and it matters. The most glaring example of this must surely be the political response to the Rochdale child abuse cases, in which nine men were jailed earlier this year for their part in grooming and raping up to 50 young girls over several years.

Sentencing the men, Judge Gerald Clifton said: "One of the factors leading to that [abuse] was the fact that they [the victims] were not part of your community or religion." Many academics, journalists and community leaders have since debated the issue of whether a conspiracy of silence existed in the community from which the perpetrators came, or whether the authorities were reluctant to investigate for fear of being accused of racism or insensitivity.

Whilst these conversations continue, the political class (with one or two exceptions) has collectively decided that cultural differences between the victims and the abusers had nothing to do with it, and that what matters is better funding for social services or more education about alcohol or anything that doesn't involve questioning the reasons for the timidity and moral failure of the police and the council.

Two weeks ago on Question Time the panel was asked what might have motivated the police to ignore the reported abuse - for it was reported. Harriet Harman, Danny Alexander and Jacob Rees-Mogg all made powerful points about lessons to learn, but it fell to Steve Coogan, the comedian among the politicians, to question whether the police were too afraid of generating community tensions to investigate.

If mainstream political leaders do not touch this sensitive issue then it will be claimed by the extremist and hate-filled voices of the British National Party or English Defence League. This is already happening, and it is a downward spiral because once the issue has been "claimed" by the fringe extremists then mainstream leaders are even more frightened of acknowledging a problem, less they be accused of agreeing with Nick Griffin.

One of the first statements to emerge from Rochdale Council after the men were sentenced and their own behaviour severely criticised, was that “lessons have been learnt.” This phrase is so commonly heard in the wake of a scandal that one is entitled to ask whether anything is being learnt at all. It seems that a judge can question the moral failings of a community and a comedian can question the reticence of the police, but politicians daren’t question either. If this continues, it won’t be long until lessons have to be learnt all over again. 

Tags: Christian May, Rochdale

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