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Jimmy Savile and the Banking Crisis - United by Failure to Question

06/08/2014 12:36 BST | Updated 05/10/2014 10:59 BST

What links Jimmy Savile and the banking collapse of 2008? One word does rather neatly: Gullibility.

The lesson from both scandals is that what we need is a healthy dose of professional scepticism injected into society

Curiously, the idea of 'professional scepticism' is fully ingrained in only one profession, accountancy, where it is a requirement for anyone auditing a company.

Without it being applied more widely we are in an increasingly vulnerable place, venerating business and the actions of individuals without proper question as our instincts are assaulted by public relations, spin, advertising, and the mob rule of social media.

As the great journalist Louis Heren once said, the key to understanding a politician who offers a confidence is to ask yourself: "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?" We need to be asking the same question more often and more widely, if a little less pejoratively.

A healthy dose of scepticism from people in a position to exercise it might have prevented the banking crisis. It certainly would have flushed out Jimmy Savile, not least because someone, somewhere would have understood a duty to see his behaviour for what it was, not what it pretended to be.

A striking feature about both the banking collapse, and Savile's abuse for that matter, is that it took place in plain sight, all but fully visible to intelligent people.

Easy money and bad loans packaged up into 'products', ones that even those selling them barely understood, should have been ringing more regulatory alarms than they did before the global economy nearly collapsed entirely.

There is a great deal we could gain as a culture from being more questioning, which is not the same as being more cynical. Scepticism is what allowed the Age of Enlightenment to emerge in the Seventeenth Century, a liberation of arts and sciences from the stranglehold of religious orthodoxies. Without it we would still be ducking witches and nobody would have heard much about computers.

Neither is it particularly about assuming malpractice or mendacity, although it does mean being aware of unusual or suspicious behaviour in others.

Professional scepticism would also help us at a personal level to manage biases and exuberances that can lead to bad choices, whether about money, moving home or choosing a career.

We would ask routinely whether criminal records checks have been carried out on people spending a lot of time with children other than their own; whether a 'healthy' breakfast cereal really can contain processed jam and enough sugar to sink a battleship. The list is long.

Box ticking and rules have their place, but they can hinder scepticism, which requires courage, judgement and the confidence of independent thought.

It would help if employers and government encouraged it, but the erratic protection offered to whistleblowers, its variant, in the National Health Service suggests there needs to be a significant cultural shift to make that happen.

It is hard work being a sceptic as a matter of course, not least because it involves challenging. After all, it took a small child to finally announce loudly that the emperor really wasn't wearing any clothes in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.

Regulators and politicians could make a start by using the phrase 'professional scepticism' to encourage themselves and warn others.

But however it is done, we need to see scepticism being applied, particularly to shed light on the obvious, something we appear to do too little of as a society, however sophisticated we think we are becoming.