As the Savile case became increasingly incredible, Ed Miliband, rightly, called for an investigation into who knew what and when at the BBC and any other institutions where abuse was alleged. This investigation is clearly needed.
I wonder though, if we in politics, might have our own issues to confront.
I want to start with a story. A few years back, I was a councillor in Newcastle.
The ward I was in had two excellent, long-standing, hard-working councillors, and me. I was a new councillor, and considerably less excellent. The next door ward, Heaton, was also represented by three Labour councillors. One of these, Colin Wappat, was also a new councillor. Not long after my election, he was arrested for child abuse, allegedly carried out when he had been a social worker a decade or more earlier.
The then leader of the Councillor, Tony Flynn, immediately and quite properly, suspended Colin from the Labour group, and while Colin protested his innocence, and so did not immediately step down as a councillor, he was replaced as a Labour candidate at the next election.
Two things stood out for me about this. First, it came as a complete shock to everyone involved that Colin had been accused of child abuse. Like most abusers, he did not come with convenient and easily identifiable horns.
The second thing I remember was that even after his arrest, he strongly protested his innocence, and attempted to be involved in party activity well after his arrest. As we were the neighbouring ward to him, my recollection is that he tried to come leafleting in our election campaign. He had been accused, but claimed innocence. No-one wanted him on our campaign, but what if he was innocent, as he claimed?
In the end, he was convicted, and went to prison for six years. The issue of what we would or should have done if credible allegations remained but no conviction was secured never arose. What if Colin had been a more integral part of our politics, not a new councillor – a senior figure, someone who people felt a closeness to, loyalty to, who they simply did not believe was an abuser?
Why do I mention this long-resolved case? Because the Savile, and other similar affairs, suggests to me that if those who seek to abuse children seek positions where their power and influence means they will appear powerful to their victims, then as well as entertainment, or religion, politics would be a natural place to seek such apparent shelter and authority.
Further, if a culture of looking the other way existed in the BBC, or in the NHS, and we are only now realising this, might a similar culture have existed in politics too?
If there are cases when such accusations have some weight, has politics ever ended up offering alleged abusers shelter, even if unwittingly? Looking from the outside, can politics appear to be an impenetrable club of the relatively powerful, where people protect each other first?
Now, we need to be careful. Rumours, accusations, gossip swirl in politics, naturally. Some such rumours should be dismissed as outright malicious. I can’t imagine what it might have been like if you were a gay man in Newcastle politics in the seventies. Mostly they can be dismissed as irrelevant – if a married MP has an affair with a younger researcher, I generally couldn’t care less, politically speaking*.
But for all those concerns, are there lurking in the political past, cases of powerful men who seem untouchable, whose denials of abuse are accepted, and their accusers evaded, not confronted? We know in the past it happened with financial corruption. Could it have happened in other ways too?
Of course, innocence deserves as great a protection as guilt deserves prosecution. We cannot allow witch hunts of those who might be accused, Yet as the BBC shows us there is perhaps a standard lower than the criminal, higher than mere accusation to which Institutions should perhaps be held accountable.
Perhaps we can accept that a very small minority of those who are attracted to power of any sort – whether in the media, education, church, or in politics – are attracted to positions of authority for their own protection, and we can determine that to whatever extent we can, we will act to stop this.
The alternative is that we do what others have done. Find it too difficult, too awkward, too frightening. Worry that we will drag our collective reputation into the mud. Fear, reasonably enough, that we will tarnish reputations unjustly.
If you hang around politics for long enough, you will come across abuse cases like Colin Wappat’s. It is horrible, but there it is.
In most cases they are dealt with as Colin’s case was, reasonably, promptly and firmly. I doubt even Labour’s harshest opponents in Newcastle would attack Labour for the sins of an abuser, and I hope the same would apply to a similar incident the other way round.
In the light of the Savile case though, I wonder if there are also cases where accusations were made, little could be overwhelmingly proved, and so nothing was done.
If this happened, or was thought to have happened, how might it have affected those who, like Savile’s only now emerging victims, felt their alleged abuser was untouchable?
I don’t have an answer to this.
I don’t know how a party or individual politicians “should” respond to an unproven accusation. I don’t know how a party responds to rumours strongly denied. I don’t know when precisely the justified need for evidence becomes the turning of a blind eye. I also know that false accusations and malicious gossip are real risks for politicians.
At the same time, if abusers find being a powerful man a convenient shelter, then surely those of us in politics share a common duty to prevent that from being the case?
Perhaps as a beginning, everyone in politics should remember that our structures and cultures are as vulnerable to abuse by exploiters as any other powerful institution, and consider more carefully how we can ensure that no victim ever feels that their abuser can make themselves inviolable by dint of their apparent authority?
Perhaps we need to open ourselves willingly for the sort of inspection the BBC is enduring unwillingly?
* A caveat. The BBC issue seems to be splitting into two separate, related traumas. The first is around alleged child abuse sheltered by a culture of blindness to victims. The second is around a systemic culture of sexual harassment in the workplace. Both are important, and I’d suspect that politics has its share of both, but they are, I think different aspects of the same power imbalance.
So perhaps I should say: Married MP having affair with younger researcher: Shrug. Married MP assuming younger researchers are sexually available and acting on this: Not Shrug.