The news agenda is dominated by melodramatic scandals that act as simplified versions of reality in which roles are allocated to accusers, victims, perpetrators and those condemned for failing to prevent wrong-doing. A few scandals are rooted in reality, such as those focused on Harvey Weinstein or Jimmy Saville, but others are becoming ever more exaggerated or phoney.
The media knows a good story when it sees one, regardless of whether it is true or false. It is interesting how the same characteristics crop in each scandal, however different they might at first appear: the most dubious sources of information are treated as credible; these sources gain the status of “victims” whom it is forbidden to criticise; the accusations against the person or institution under attack are vague, multiple and toxic; the trivial or shaky nature of the original crime is forgotten as the scandal is spiced up with claims of a cover-up, something which can never be wholly disproved even by the most thorough going disclosure.
There is a high degree of hypocrisy in the media pretence that it is duty-bound to report the most unlikely and obviously partisan allegations. In fact, it loves these stories of gladiatorial combat between angels and devils, though the scenario has often been concocted for partisan political purposes. The aim of any PR or propaganda person is to create stories that they know the press will be unable to leave alone. Fabricating a scandal is not difficult: an example of this is Hillary Clinton, who was cumulatively damaged by a series of fake scandals: the Whitewater real estate scandal in the 1990s from which she made no money; her use of a private email account that revealed no secrets; and the absurd attempt to hold her responsible for the murder of the US ambassador in Benghazi in 2012. As with most fake scandals, the aim was to slide away from any substantive charges but create a general belief among voters that she was slippery and evasive.
In Britain most scandals have a sexual element, but allegations of a cover-up are now so prevalent that anybody is vulnerable, however innocent. Even the most bizarre accusations are taken seriously. Take two recent cases: in 2015, the Church of England announced that George Bell, one of the most distinguished Anglican bishops of the twentieth century, famous for his principled criticism of the carpet bombing of German cities in the Second World War, was denounced by his own church for sexually abusing a child some 63 years previously. Having died in 1958, he could not defend himself and the accusation came from a single woman, “Carol”, while nobody else had complained about his behaviour. Yet without any real evidence being produced, the church decided to say it believed her, paid compensation and denigrated one of its most highly regarded members.
An independent inquiry was established by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, which found that the original report was shoddy and ill-informed. This should have elicited an apology from Archbishop to the memory of Bishop Bell since there was no evidence that he had done anything wrong. But Welby was evidently more frightened of being accused of a “cover-up” in defending Bell and did no such thing.
Instead, the Archbishop agreed that Bell has great achievements to his name – such as looking after Jewish children in flight from the Holocaust and helping German Christians resist Hitler – but it turned out that a single unsupported allegation made 50 years after the event outweighed this. “We realise that a significant cloud is left over his name,” said the Archbishop, adding that Bell had been accused of great wickedness.
There are echoes here of the psychology and behaviour that fuelled the great witch craze in Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, during which anybody who did not support the most crazed allegations of the witch-finders feared the accusation that they themselves were complicit with the witches.
The same point is made by the story of another pretended scandal even more bizarre than that of Bishop Bell. This time the accuser, called “Nick”, claimed that he had been the victim of a VIP paedophile ring operating from the Carlton Club and an apartment block called Dolphin Square in London. Members of the supposed ring included Edward Heath and Leon Britain, the former Home Secretary, along with Field Marshall Lord Bramall. The ring, according to Nick, had murdered three boys, one of whom was knifed by an MP. The Metropolitan Police opened an investigation which found these allegations “credible and true”, despite a complete lack of evidence other than from Nick himself. The police even held a press conference in 2015 outside Heath’s old home in Salisbury appealing for his victims to come forward.
Why should such obvious nonsense receive such publicity? In part, because the press and public alike enjoy stories in which members of the establishment are unmasked as child molesters. But such is the merciless nature of modern scandal generation that few dare defend those who should be very defensible such as Bishop Bell, Edward Heath or Oxfam.
Those accused in such cases are in a particularly vulnerable position because it is difficult to disprove a fantasy, particularly if the accusation is lurid and disgusting. Those targeted know that even the most convincing denial will simply give the story legs and further damage their reputations.
The Oxfam “sex scandal” is the product of much the same script that has produced fake or exaggerated scandals in the past. The media has been lapping it up because it has all the elements of the classic British scandal, including the claim that high moral issue is involved.
There is a strong defence for Oxfam which is that the offences of which a small number of their staff accused are relatively trivial and have, as far as I can tell, not increased the sum of human misery in Haiti or anywhere else. Prostitution in the island is the result of the terrible poverty, not the availability of aid workers as clients. Most of the media revelations about Oxfam’s failings in Haiti come in any case from the aid agency’s own report, but critics have used this copiously as a stick to beat Oxfam, then turn round and accuse it of a “cover-up”, though most of the contents of the report were published by the BBC in 2011.
The hypocrisy is breathtaking: had Oxfam not reacted so quickly to allegation of bad behaviour by its staff in Haiti, there would have been no report and probably no scandal. Instead, it sent an expert investigation team, identified those responsible for misbehaviour and dismissed them. It did all this in the middle of a cholera epidemic which was to kill 7,500 and which Oxfam was trying to stem. Had it not done so, and had there been no report, it would not be in such trouble now.
Senior Oxfam figures tried briefly to defend themselves on the rational grounds that they had done little wrong and much right, but such a defence is not acceptable when the public mood is one of undiluted self-righteousness. They rightly concluded that they were much better off firing off volleys of apologies and showing extreme contrition for their over-exaggerated failings. One day the Oxfam scandal, along with those that denigrated Hillary Clinton, Edward Heath and Bishop Bell, will be recognised as the fake that it is.