The New Observer Uncategorized On cover-ups and whitewashes

On cover-ups and whitewashes

Two great traditions of the British establishment.

A cover-up is designed to protect the reputations and pension pots (which are in fact very rarely at risk anyway) of people above middle-management level in public ‘service’. It is also designed to protect the higher bureaucracy at large from any disruptions to their core activity; of looting the country. A whitewash on the other hand is designed to re-establish public confidence in a public institution on those rare occasions when the cover-up has failed.

I’ve worked in local authorities and one thing I understood is that the cover-up is always built into project planning. In fact, most of the effort goes into planning for the eventual cover-up, far more, than goes into trying to make the project a success.

A recent example of a cover-up is the attempt by the government, the DHSC and the CPS to bury the scandal that multiple doctors gave multiple warnings about Lucy Letby but nothing was done. In fact it took the hospital nearly two years from the first warning before they called in the police. The aim is to protect the senior executives in charge from any adverse publicity or even charges, and to hide the fact that these highly paid state executives could have been (according to allegations) so negligent. Ultimately it is the whole edifice of the higher levels of state bureaucracy which instinctively kick in and try to protect themselves. In a cover-up the idea is to suppress the facts. For example, the government and DHSC tried to get away with a voluntary inquiry into what happened. This sets an informal tone and in effect rules out prosecutions. (The current tactic is to put it onto the victims, saying that the DHSC will discuss the form of the inquiry with them; one part of the rationale here is that if the DHSC can talk the victims into agreeing a voluntary enquiry they can they hide behind them and say “this is what the parents wanted”. If the parents hold out for a statutory inquiry then this gets the government off the hook for trying to get away with a voluntary one; this can now be messaged as how sensitive to the parents the government is).

A current example of a whitewash is the Scottish Child Abuse enquiry. This, (I guess), mirrors the English Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which reported in October 2022. Here the idea is that, having lost control of the narrative, the establishment needs to restore public confidence in it. This works in an opposite way to a cover-up. Now, the idea is that as much information as possible must be made public (bar any really damaging details). The facts (well, apart from any really bad ones), will be acknowledged. The bare minimum of apologies and explanations will be issued. This is a damage limitation exercise. A standard tactic is to say that the problem was “systemic” rather than with anyone individual; this means no one has to be sacked (and lose their pension pot). And because so much information was aired, this puts a definite line under the matter. For example, in the case of the IICSA if anyone were to complain now about child sexual abuse, they could (and would) be told; “but the inquiry has looked into all this and cleared it up; you should have spoken up before”. After the whitewash (Public Inquiry) has done its work the establishment institutions concerned move on to a new chapter. The function of the whitewash (Public Inquiry) is to reset public trust.

The final report of the IICSA is illuminating. I am not going to soil my web site my copying much text from it, but you can read the summary report here. This inquiry cost £186 million. [1] I would guess that a great part of that went on lawyers and consultant’s fees. For this sum we learn, for example:

child sexual abuse and exploitation takes many forms but can involve vile and painful anal and vaginal rape

historically, inadequate measures were in place to protect children from the risk of
being sexually abused – sometimes there were none at all;

The other findings are equally asinine. There is also the line “this is not just a national crisis, it is a global one”; which sounds like a politician trying to avoid blame for problems with the economy by talking about a global recession. “It isn’t just us… we are part of a bigger problem”. In fact, of course, many forms of child sexual abuse have a uniquely national character. [2]

Two great British institutions; the cover-up and the whitewash.