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Paul Vallely: Another scandal — is anyone listening?

24 May 2024

The infected-blood affair reveals deep problems, argues Paul Vallely

Alamy

People hold up the Infected Blood Inquiry report outside Central Hall, Westminster, after it's publication, on Monday

People hold up the Infected Blood Inquiry report outside Central Hall, Westminster, after it's publication, on Monday

WE THOUGHT that we had heard, but we hadn’t listened. The details disclosed in Sir Brian Langstaff’s distressing report on the contaminated-blood affair — in which children were, unbelievably, knowingly experimented on by doctors — are truly shocking. But then so, too, were the revelations in a catalogue of other scandals. Yet we seem never to learn. Why is this?

Earlier this year, when news broke of the extent to which child victims of sexual exploitation had been failed by police and social services in Rochdale, I wrote here that there was a common pattern in how society handled the victims of failure by our public services (19 January). The words “child abuse”, “the Post Office”, “Ofsted”, “Grenfell”, “Windrush”, “Stephen Lawrence”, and “Hillsborough” read like a litany of betrayal.

The Prime Minister this week issued an apology to the infected-blood victims on behalf of the State. It’s undoubtedly true that politics — like the law, the Church, and so many other institutions — reflects a deep structure of inequality in our society. Those in authority, in any organisation, intuitively seek to cut costs, save face, cover their mistakes, close ranks, and protect their reputations. Even worse, they dismiss or disparage those whom they have neglected or maltreated, and, most bizarrely, manufacture realpolitik objections to the idea that they owe the public a duty of candour.

Bishop James Jones has called it “the patronising disposition of unaccountable power”. But the problem goes deeper, into our social culture. That was brought home to me recently when I heard a remarkable speech by Kate Middleton, the young chief executive of the Wren Project, a charity that assists some of the six million people in this country who suffer from auto-immune diseases. What society needed to do, above all, she said, was to learn to listen properly.

“When you feel listened to, it transforms your life,” she said, explaining that she was diagnosed with lupus at the age of 17. “My entire adult life, I have lived inside a body that attacks me.” Outwardly, she looks fine. But she rarely answers truthfully when asked how she is. “No one is interested in something that can’t be fixed, something that’s just depressing and has no silver lining.” As a result, she feels unable to speak. She is silenced.

“There are six million people in the UK that feel like I do. Silenced, isolated, mad,” she said. “You stop being able to tell what you feel, or what you are making up, what’s true and what’s false.” The Wren Project trains counsellors to listen to the anxieties that auto-immune sufferers cannot talk about to anyone else. Through that service, “we feel like normal people again — we feel less broken and less damaged. Feeling listened to is powerful and life-changing.”

Sometimes, she wonders whether the Wren Project is a metaphor for how we should respond to an entire world, which, it seems, is trying to destroy itself, as an auto-immune disease does. What Sir Brian Langstaff has done for the infected-blood community is to listen to people who have, for decades, felt silenced, isolated, and ignored. Perhaps the first step to arresting the succession of scandals in our society is for us all to learn to listen properly.

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