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Press: Conspiracy is more memorable than truth

23 March 2018

IICSA

The IICSA panel

The IICSA panel

THE trouble with conspiracy theories is that they are so easy to construct, and so deliciously elastic that they can contain any facts about the world at all. I wrote that sentence, and then continued with an illustration — a couple more sentences “proving” that Lambeth Palace had collaborated with the Russian secret service to arrange the nerve-gas attack in Salisbury (News, 16 March), so as to distract attention from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) hearings in Westminster.

Then I deleted them. The point was made. The silly conspiracy is far more memorable than the workaday truth, and much more likely to be remembered in a week or so’s time. That quality of memorability — of the rearrangement of familiar facts into a new and striking pattern — is one of the things that any news story strives for. It is also, of course, the thing that you do with greater concision and force when constructing a joke. Perhaps all news stories are simply failed jokes. This thought is comforting at a time when the news itself isn’t funny at all.

 

TAKE, for example, the cack-handed malice and dishonesty revealed in the email exchange that only The Times, of the secular papers, covered at the IICSA hearing: “An official for Lord Williams of Oystermouth was terrified that the revelations would make the Church of England seem ‘as bad as Rome’, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) was told.

“The Rev George Pitcher, then the public affairs secretary, wrote that the blame for the poor handling of cases in the area should be laid at the door of the Right Rev John Hind, then Bishop of Chichester, replying: ‘[Bishop] Hind may have to be thrown to the press as a sacrifice’.

“He added: ‘The potential scale of the scandal though — it seems to me — is such that the backwash must reach the archbishop. The real danger here is that these stories are used to suggest that the CofE is as bad as Rome, both in abuse and cover-up. The aim must be to distance the current ABC [Archbishop of Canterbury] from it as much as poss’.”

Mr Pitcher’s email is a wonderful example of the poisonous complacency that the Church of England can exhibit at times — the problem is not the crime, but what people will think of it — and, while I’m sure that any PR person would have such thoughts, no competent Machiavellian would put them in writing: Sir Humphrey would have found a much subtler way to make the point. None of the recipients of the email seems to have rebuked him for it, either. Perhaps they all thought that they were being clever and sophisticated.

 

ALL in all, the Church has, so far, got away from the IICSA inquiry with astonishingly little damage, simply because it has not been very widely reported. On the other hand, Charles Moore, in The Daily Telegraph, revisited the scandal of John Smyth QC (a former chairman of the Iwerne Trust, who faced multiple allegations of abuse; News, 10 February 2017), in a way that I found almost unbearably moving, not least because Moore, by formation and conviction, is almost always on the side of the bullies in politics.

In fact, in his first column on the subject, he had reproached the victim here for making accusations anonymously. The man in question, who turned out to be Andy Morse, a son of a chairman of Lloyd’s Bank, made himself known to Moore, and this personal gesture made it possible to see the crime in its proper proportions:

“Carefully selecting his most vulnerable followers, Smyth would beat them once they were 16. Andy knew Smyth for two years before he was beaten. The chastisement was ferocious: ‘You simply could not believe how much the first stroke hurt.’ Latterly, there were a hundred strokes. Sometimes, Smyth forced one boy to help him beat the others. In Andy’s view, this boy was also a victim, not a willing accomplice. After being beaten, each boy would return from the shed and have to sit politely with Mrs Smyth. Sometimes their blood would stain the sofas.

“Even after going to university, Andy was still in thrall to Smyth. His experiences led him, aged 19, to lose his faith. Yet he did not lose contact. His ‘dream father’ ordered him to return, just after his 21st birthday in 1982, to receive what he promised would be the most severe beating yet.

“Andy says the worst thing was the fear. This induced him to use painkilling drugs heavily. He could bear it no more. He did not come. Smyth waited for him at Winchester station, in vain. That night, Andy tried to kill himself, taking an overdose of drugs and cutting his wrists. It took him four months to tell his parents why. They learnt what had happened from the headmaster, not their son.”

The last three sentences suggest a disturbing truth about the Chichester abuse: the cover-up was not just a concealment from the press of what had happened, but from the perpetrators and from the victims, too. Lies will take on their own life and gradually strangle everything if we let them, yet they can be so much easier, or less painful, to remember than the truth.

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