Respected astronomer Seth Shostak is unlikely to feature in any of the investigations into the likes of Cyril Smith, Jimmy Savile, Max Clifford and the countless banks, companies and organisations that abuse power and trust, but perhaps he should.
The author of Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence knows how to look hard for something you want to find. But we don’t do what Shostak does when it comes to seeking those who shaft us.
Reading Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith by Simon Danczuk and Matt Baker – the excellent expose of how Cyril Smith twisted his power in and over Rochdale – I was struck by the parallels with Savile’s reign of abuse. They were both calculating bullies who sought personal advantage and took it, while the people who could have stopped them did not, and now give the same raft of excuses and/or denials.
One idea to protect victims is the mandatory reporting within public bodies of abuse allegations. It is hardly cutting edge stuff – schools have been made to report allegations of racism for years.
Forcing managers to refer abuse allegations up the chain would be a start, but we could go further. Maybe it’s time we did something pro-active by establishing a system to audit companies, organisations and public bodies that are flagged up as potentially significantly dodgy, opaque or dishonest.
Transparency and behaviour that looks a lot like honesty are easy enough to identify – I wrote about them here – so the opposite should not be impossible to spot.
If we actively looked for people and organisations that were shafting others we would surely find at least some of them. It’s comforting to think that Smith’s corrupted power and the abuse suffered by so many people was something that happened ‘then’, not now. We call it historical abuse and imagine it was the result of events of another time. But both Smith and Savile were only stopped by old age and death – neither was effectively exposed while they were alive. Savile was still sexually abusing people aged 79 and Smith was working to destroy honest political opponents in his seventies.
Setting thresholds for a dodgy audit could be put out to consultation. I’d suggest resisting too many FoI requests and senior figures refusing to openly answer journalists’ questions on matters of public interest as two to start off with.
One of the better reports into why Savile wasn’t stopped – Drusilla Sharpling’s Mistakes have been made into police failings for HMIC – asks if it could happen again. Her stark conclusion: “There is a distinct possibility”
For Savile read Cyril Smith, Max Clifford, rotten banks, shifty councils, and bullying individuals and organisations of every stripe. All of them damage people and society and most of them could be found and stopped.
But unlike Seth Shostak and his alien hunting we’re not really looking, we’re just reacting – tutting and conducting investigations – when eventually the shameful evidence becomes too obvious to ignore