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Margaret Heffernan

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An Epidemic of Wilful Blindness: Savile, Armstrong, LIBOR, HSBC...

Posted: 31/10/2012 00:31

When I published my book on willful blindness, I believed strongly in my thesis - that the worst crimes are committed in public where everyone can see them but tries not to. But I had no idea it would be proved and proved again with such monotonous regularity. First there was Deepwater Horizon, then phone hacking, child abuse in Rochdale, then Winterborne View, the Catholic Church almost continuously, the LIBOR rate fixing, HSBC money laundering and now Lance Armstrong and Jimmy Savile.

We should by now be weaned off of the idea that these disasters are caused by a few bad apples, or the comforting myth that the only bad people are bankers. What all of these crimes have in common are that they involved large numbers of people and persisted over many years. There were multiple warnings and opportunities to intervene - all of which were shirked.

It continues to be comforting to scapegoat a few people or particular institutions: Rupert Murdoch or the BBC. But the harder truth inside these stories is that there were multiple failings on the part of individuals who made choices, the wrong choices, to remain silent. But we all like to think we're good and ethical, that we could never behave this way. So what goes wrong?

1. We idolise charismatic individuals. We all like being in love and celebrity-worship is a lite version of the same experience. Celebrity adulation won't admit failure or flaws; we believe the positive hype and conveniently dismiss the rumbling undertones of doubt. Many people recognized an overly-imperial style of leadership when John Browne ran BP - but no one questioned him. Plenty of cyclists muttered about Lance Armstrong's drug use - but everyone preferred the miracle man. Hyping and idealizing these individuals does them no favour and leaves us feeling stupid and bereft.

2. We're busy and distracted. It may feel cool to be multi-tasking like mad, reading, writing and listening to YouTube simultaneously. We may even imagine that yes, we can keep watch TV programmes that simultaneously combine interviews with stock tickers, weather forecasts and sports scores. All the neuroscience in the world will tell you that you can't, that our brains have hard cognitive limits. The busier we are, the less capable we become of critical thinking: knowing right from wrong. Some might say that is what much new media is for.

3. We're conflict averse. Few people have the courage or skills to start or conduct a coherent argument. They've gone through an education system that encourages them to seek correct answers, not challenge them. They've been trained to be obedient and conformist. Pile people with debt and their incentive to take a risk evaporates. Demonize whistleblowers and perpetuate the myth that they are all always crazy (when in fact quite the opposite is true) and you can take smart people and render them silent.

4. We're obedient. Nearly half a century of social psychology shows that most of us will do as we are told. Nothing in our culture addresses or dislodges this behaviour. While there are programmes around the world to teach people how to stand up against unethical or illegal instructions, few of them are used in the U.K.

5. We're conformist. For 50years, social psychologists have proved that, given the choice between fitting in and standing out, most people want to be part of the crowd. We would rather make a wrong decision than risk exclusion. This is a particular problem in the medical profession where it is understood but where little or nothing is done to counter-act it.

6. We mistake talk for action. In many instances of abuse, you'll discover that people have been talking about the problem - but to each other, not to anyone who is prepared to take action. That means it feels like we've done something when really we haven't. We think that 'someone' will do something - just not us. The iron rule of bystander behaviour is that, the more people who witness wrongdoing, the less likely it is that anyone will intervene.

It's the easiest thing in the world to demonize bankers - they're all psychopaths - or the BBC - asleep at the wheel. But the truth is that for truly bad things to happen on the scale of any of these nightmares - Armstrong, Savile, PPI, the Catholic Church, BP, Barclays, HSBC etc - you need hundreds or thousands of people to turn a blind eye. Which we very reliably do.

Also on HuffPost:

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  • Jimmy Savile in 1961 around the time he was working for Radio Luxembourg. He is at London Airport with Pan American stewardess Birgit Johansson with two gold discs; one is for American singer Elvis Presley for having sold one million copies of "It's Now or Never" in the UK, and the other is for Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker

  • Cilla Black and Jimmy Savile before a Variety Club Luncheon at the Savoy Hotel. Taken in 1964, the year Savile became the first presenter of Top of the Pops

  • Two women have come forward with allegations from the 1960s, one who was 14 and another who was a teenager when she claims Savile sexually abused her in Scarborough

  • Savile in 1969 with Physically Handicapped and Able-Bodied (PHAB) member Erika Mentz from Germany and other PHAB members at a dance at Devonshire House

  • 1969 also saw Savile begin volunteering at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital for specialist spinal injuries. He would later be given a room there

  • Jimmy Savile presenting a cheque to children on behalf of the NSPCC in 1969

  • The 1970s saw Savile start volunteering at Leeds General Infirmary and...

  • ... Broadmoor secure high-security psychiatric hospital. Allegations by former patients have been made against Savile although ex-workers have disputed the idea that he could have been left alone with anyone whilst working there

  • The 70s also saw the start of Jim'll Fix It. Allegations from this period include Caroline Moore, a 13-year-old patient at Stoke Mandeville hospital in 1971, who says Savile "rammed his tongue" down her throat and another allegation accuses Savile of molesting a brain-damaged teenage patient at Leeds General Infirmary in 1972

  • The 1980s saw the continuation of Top of the Pops and Jim'll Fix It as Savile became a much loved household name. Two allegations relating to this time include one from a then-15-year-old girl (not pictured) who made a complaint of abuse by Savile in Lancashire. Pictured is 12-year-old Rebecca Heap

  • Savile at the Stoke Mandeville hospital with injured children from Beirut in 1987

  • Savile was knighted in 1990 and continued his charity work throughout the decade

  • Savile was questioned in 2007 by police about allegations of sexual abuse but the Crown Prosecution service says there is not enough evidence to warrant a prosecution

  • A 2008 police report into abuse at the Haut de Garenne children's home in Jersey names Savile, although this is never made public

  • Savile re-united with his Jim'll Fix It chair in 2009. The previous year Sussex police received a complaint of sexual assault but went on to say the victim was "unwilling to co-operate in any investigation"

  • Jimmy Savile is found dead at the age of 84 in October 2011. He is buried in Scarborough

  • In December 2011 the BBC drop an investigation by Newsnight into the allegations of sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile. Three tribute programmes are aired instead

  • ITV airs a documentary, 'Exposure, the Other Side of Jimmy Savile', in which a number of women claim they were abused by Savile as youngsters, including Karin Ward (pictured)

  • Within days of the documentary, many more allegations surface. By the 9 October Peter Spindler of the Metropolitan Police tells the BBC: "It is quite clear from what women are telling us that Savile was a predatory sex offender"

  • 11 October 2012 and George Entwistle, Director General of the BBC, asks journalists why the Newsnight programme was dropped as police from Tayside, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and North Yorkshire police say they are investigating allegations going back to 1959

  • 12 October and police reveal they have 340 potential lines of inquiry

  • 15 October sees a man come forward alleging that Savile abused him when he was a nine-year-old boyscout

  • Savile's family removed his headstone from his grave and broke it up in the wake of the furore

  • Jimmy Savile sexually abuses transgender man

    A transgender man comes forward alleging that Jimmy Savile 'stuck his hand up his nightdress' while he was a 17-year-old teenage girl at Broadmoor in the 1970's. More here http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/10/15/jimmy-savile-timeline-abuse-allegations_n_1966426.html?1350304573#slide=1641388