Rod Liddle Rod Liddle

My wish for Ed Davey

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Has Ed Davey resigned yet? Being a man of great decency and honour, I assume he has, leaving the party to be led by Velma from Scooby-Doo. If he hasn’t yet resigned – and from his statements at time of writing it doesn’t look as if he has that intention – then I hope he is hounded on every step of the electoral trail this year by furious postmasters and mistresses. May they ambush every photo op, like a tribe of incandescent hobbits. Yes, there were at least ten other government ministers, from all three major parties, who should feel some sense of culpability, but Davey’s tenure as Post Office minister came at a fairly crucial time in the proceedings, between 2010 and 2012. We are reminded too that Davey finds it difficult to open his fat mouth without calling for someone’s resignation and so it is gratifying to see the boot on the other foot and kicking with great vigour.

The purpose of bureaucrats is to prevent instability and so the whistleblowers are always ignored

The Horizon scandal is being called Britain’s greatest ever miscarriage of justice, given that more than 700 postmasters and mistresses were hauled before the courts, given criminal convictions and in many cases rendered bankrupt simply, it would seem, because the Post Office bureaucrats refused to consider that perhaps their Fujitsu software accounting system might be a little flawed. Instead, disdaining Occam’s razor, they wedded themselves to the highly unlikely proposition that hundreds upon hundreds of frauds were being carried out across the country by their employees.

If they had paused for one moment to weigh up the probabilities at work, they would surely have suspected that the problem lay with IT, not the workforce. But they either couldn’t do that, or didn’t do that, presumably because they would have been forced to take the rap for installing such a staggeringly useless system, which one outside invigilator, a man called Jason Coyne, described as being frequently not fit for purpose. The Post Office’s response to Mr Coyne’s analysis was, effectively, to sack him and take no notice of what he had discovered. This is so often the case with ‘whistleblowers’ in bureaucracies – they are usually at first ignored, then defamed and finally kicked out.

Some of those postmasters and mistresses committed suicide, and I suppose the other scandal is that people like me didn’t really get involved in the story until Toby Jones had made it intelligible. The greater interest now is a consequence of Jones’s (as usual) excellent portrayal in an ITV drama of a wronged postmaster who refused to back down.

When I began to read about the issue in a bit more depth it reminded me of the Cleveland child abuse scandal of 1987. Some 121 children were removed from their families because two paediatricians at the (then) Middlesbrough Hospital, Marietta Higgs and Geoffrey Wyatt, reckoned they were being buggered by their parents. They came to this conclusion having employed a new testing procedure on the children called ‘reflex anal dilation’. This was basically poking a pencil up some child’s bum and seeing if the sphincter muscle dilated.

‘Just speeding up the compensation process.’

Much as with the Post Office business, any notion of comparative probability was dismissed. Their procedure – which, to my mind, counts as serious child abuse all by itself – could not possibly be wrong, they told themselves. A wokeish ideology on the part of the doctors and class differences undoubtedly played a role in the Cleveland scandal; indeed, the two doctors still believe they made the right diagnoses and, far from apologising, have demanded a new investigation, despite repeated verdicts from chief medical officers that the horrible testing procedure had been unreliable.

But there are plenty of other more recent scandals which stem directly from either top-ranking or middle-ranking bureaucrats closing ranks to save their own backsides and thus making the situation a hundred times worse further down the line. It happens at least once a year in the BBC, for example, the most notorious examples of late being the corporation’s refusal to see anything remiss in the behaviour of Jimmy Savile, and last year’s imbroglio over Huw Edwards.

The process is almost always as follows: someone in the BBC does something naughty or wicked and, when a member of the general public complains, the corporation airily wafts it away: nothing to be seen here. Then the BBC’s own journos start wondering a little – Meirion Jones in the Savile case and Newsnight in the Huw Edwards business. Then the press gets involved and finally the BBC is forced to ’fess up – and a much bigger mess is left behind than if they had acted upon the original complaints, rather than hoping that they would go away. They never do go away: when will our institutions learn that?

There is a very similar story to be told about our, euh, magnificent National Health Service, both with the professional high-handedness and malpractice of doctors in the contaminated blood scandal and the more recent case of the psychotic nurse Lucy Letby. Had the numerous whistleblowers – largely consultants – been listened to, Letby would probably not have got away with murdering seven babies and attempting to murder six more. But it was easier for the authorities, with their rotas, to stand by Letby than to launch an investigation which might rebound horribly upon the hospital and thus upon themselves.

This is the thing about whistleblowers – initially their revelations do create short-term instability for whatever institution they are exposing. The purpose of bureaucrats is to prevent instability, short-term or otherwise – and so the whistleblowers are always ignored, defamed or exiled. And as a consequence the problem becomes a crisis and then, a little further down the line, a scandal. This is a huge flaw in the bureaucratic ideal, and one which unfortunately was not foreseen by the sociologist Max Weber, who believed that a strict hierarchy and a nice, strong set of rules would eliminate corruption. How wrong he was.


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