What Reputation?

April 26 2024

In which inquiry into which institution (and, for a bonus point, when) were the following failings reported?

– warnings or concerns raised by junior staff were ignored or hidden away

– senior staff and colleagues were aware but turned a blind eye

– complainants, both internal and external, were treated as troublemakers

– a tendency to close ranks against those raising concerns

– missed opportunities: all too many moments when something could have been said, should have been said but was left unsaid

– retaliation (or threats of it) against staff

– a culture of deference: both to senior staff and to the institution

– viewing the protection of the institution’s perceived reputation as more important than dealing with its failings.

No: not the Post Office Inquiry – though all these factors, and plenty more – outright lying (by omission, at the very least), a veritable epidemic of amnesia, an inability to read or understand any sort of written document and a quite remarkable failure to understand that work in a paid job involves actually doing things, ideally useful ones – could, on the evidence of the last fortnight, be added to the list.

No – all these were the findings of an inquiry into the Gosport War Memorial Hospital in 2018 where over very many years 450 patients had their lives shortened because of the unjustified actions of clinical staff. It is a reminder that such behaviour is not a one-off, not confined to any one atrociously run institution.

That affair had something else in common with the Post Office matter. 12 different sorts of investigations over 27 years failed to uncover the full facts or lead to effective action. How can this be? Well, different bodies with different agendas, powers, without access to all the information and sometimes lacking the relevant skillset do not result in the ideal investigative set up.

But in truth, institutions do not always really want to know about their failings. Such investigations, reviews, audits and reports are often designed to create the impression of feverish activity while uncovering nothing and giving the desired – but usually false – reassurance. So it was with Gosport Hospital – and so it was with the Post Office.

And so it has been in pretty much every other scandal, failing or other disaster: whether it is at a Boeing, a police force (too many to mention), NHS trusts (again too many to mention), charity, government department or any of the bodies where serious problems have been uncovered. The same problems, the same human failings recur in very different organisations and sectors. They recur in how mistakes happen or problems arise and, crucially, in how such organisations and those working in them respond to such mistakes and problems when they do happen.

Not if. When. Things do go wrong. But this is rarely the reason scandals happen. They happen because of how those organisations, their leaders, staff working in them and those advising them behave in response to failure, problems and mistakes.

Of all the WTF moments at the Post Office Inquiry in recent days, the revelation that the Post Office’s response to the suicide of a subpostmaster (Martin Griffiths, under stress because of discrepancies he blamed on Horizon and after having been made to repay money stolen by robbers who beat him up) was to appoint a media lawyer to advise it as he lay dying in hospital and then to “drip feed” compensation payments to his widow to buy her silence is one of the worst. The cynicism, the exploitation of grief and weakness, the bullying, the determination to avoid scrutiny, to prevent the facts – even when a tragedy happens – coming out are bad enough. That this was done by senior executives with the help and advice of professionals, none of whom seem ever to have asked themselves whether what they were doing was right makes it infinitely worse.

One of the key executives involved – Angela Van Den Bogerd – gave evidence at the 2019 “Common Issues” trial in the Bates litigation. Mr Justice Fraser said of her that she had sought to mislead him and, in future, he would only accept evidence from her if it was “clearly and incontrovertibly corroborated by contemporaneous documents“. This is the judicial equivalent of “Liar, liar, Pants on fire.” There was no investigation by the Post Office into her conduct following that trial, no adverse effects for her at all. On the contrary, she received a bonus for her work.

Organisations and professionals behaving like this show us who and what they really are. They have no reputation worth preserving.

Back to all news