Monday, 8 June 2015

Hiding in Plain Sight (I)

Daniel wrote recently about prima facie scandalous behaviours in academics, drawing a parallel with banking cultures pre-Crash. Pointing out that while activities like taking credit for grad students’ work or blatantly gaming independent review mechanisms may in some cases seem rational and even acceptable behaviour within certain academic circles, once these things are exposed to the light of day as, say LIBOR rate-fixing was, they appear rightly scandalous. Heads roll. It’s only a matter of time, therefore, before UK academics join the police, journalists and politicians and find the ‘but everybody does it’ excuse does not wash when you’re on the front page of a newspaper.

One commenter in that long, long thread asked how something can become a scandal when everyone already knows about it. Something everybody already knows about is the very definition of a scandal.

Let me draw your attention to some things that everybody knows or knew about.

Everybody who regularly gets past the front page of a broadsheet British newspaper has known that hundreds if not thousands of refugees have been drowning in the Mediterranean for at least a couple of years now. It became a scandal when one sunk boat pushed the one-off death toll one order of magnitude up and onto page one.

Everyone with even a passing acquaintance with the International Trade Union Congress or half a dozen other independent information sources has known for several years of the quasi-slave conditions and rising death tolls of migrant workers building Qatar’s World Cup arenas. It only became – all too briefly – a scandal when Sep Blatter’s FIFA officials were rounded up. Everybody knew about him, too.

Everyone in Northern Ireland in the 1980s knew about the shoot to kill policy of the RUC and parts of the security services and British Army in relation to known or suspected Republican terrorists – from ambulance crew to coroners to journalists to politicians, all the way to the Manchester policeman, John Stalker, whose report just managed to replace inference with evidence of what everyone knew but no one could prove or admit.

There is nothing new about the bad things that become scandals, just as there is nothing new about scandals.

Here are some iron laws of scandal for anyone thinking of perpetrating one:

A scandal is not new, or new to the public or new to people in power. A scandal is simply a set of well-embedded bad things that the right people have decided is no longer acceptable.

The scandal phase of these heretofore known, accepted and socially, politically and legally embedded bad things is triggered by its facts becoming salient enough to drive, even briefly, a part of the news cycle; enough people die anomalously – at sea, in a maternity unit, from eating something – to make real headlines; enough girls are kidnapped at once, there is a link to another front page story, the victim of the fit-up is unexpectedly white and middle class, a person or group painstakingly documents sufficient evidence despite institutional resistance, a documentary team airs a television programme, a court case is finally won.

Scandals aren’t driven by facts – everyone already has enough of those to surmise what’s really going on – but by triggers. But who is to know that THIS will be the first neglected child whose murder by her mother and step-father will make the social workers criminally culpable? Who could tell that THAT black mother has the strength and drive to not rest until her son’s murder is prosecuted? And who can predict that of all the thousands of brown paper bags passing between greasy hands in mid-afternoon north Dublin pubs, it is this one that will live on in infamy, effect and public tribunal?

Because bad things are everywhere, scandals are hard to predict, making avoidance of blame more worthwhile than prevention.

A scandal has always happened in the past. Managed properly, it’s over by the time we get to the public outpouring. Lessons have been learnt, procedures put in place. It is the institution, not the individuals, that is to blame. It was a different time. Justice is more important than revenge, and besides, she is dead, he has Alzheimers, they left the industry. Life goes on. Never again, at least never again exactly this way and in this place.

Nobody learns from scandals, except maybe which PR firm to hire for ‘crisis management’. Save yourself some money. The professionals will charge through the nose and just tell you to repeat this; no news, old news, lessons have been learnt. No news, old news, lessons have been learnt.

People in the past were crazy. They believed in crazy things, like murdering civil rights activists or sawing open labouring women’s pelvises. We no longer hold these ancient beliefs. Ours are rational, sensible, evidence-based, and necessary. Tough sometimes, sure, but necessary.

Embrace kludge. In place of reckoning, which would be unnecessarily personal and punitive, the fruitless vines of box-ticking, arse-covering and computer-says-no-will extend their paralysing caution across the land, putting it to sleep for a hundred years.

Pre-empt your own scandal by paying it forward. Give amnesty to the torturers, clemency to those who nodded it through. You may need them yourself, one day. Chase the whistle-blowers to the ends of the earth.

Relax. The news cycle moves so fast these days, something else will drive it soon. People spin so quickly through the cycle of ignoring, disbelieving, accepting, being outraged, saying they’re outraged, getting bored, becoming faintly resentful of attention paid to victims, saying they’re only after money, and then moving on, that you can pretty much cover it all in a single tweet.

Relax. Monstering only happens to child-murderers, and only if the child was a stranger to them. (Except, obviously, if that child is Palestinian and likes to play football on the beach during summer. Some bad things are sui generis and can never cause a scandal.)

Seriously, relax. This is real life. In real life there’s no Richard Curtis press conference finale when the brave act of saying the unsayable in public changes everyone and everything.

The sun will go on rising and it will go on setting. Its light disinfects nothing.

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