What do you do with allegations?
The traditional answer was, of course, generally ignore them. Particularly if the allegations were about an important white man. Which a lot of them were. Fortunately, the #metoo movement has put paid to that.
That, however, creates a new set of problems. What exactly should you do when an allegation has been made?
This problem has been thrown into stark relief in the US state of Virginia where a picture has been found of the Democratic governor of the state in his college yearbook “blacked up”. This action might seem to us as simply bizarre, but has to be seen in the context of a state which was the capitol of the slavery-supporting Confederacy in the US Civil War and a bastion of segregation through to the 1960s.
Fortunately, Virginia had an excellent number 2 (lieutenant governor). Unfortunately, the day after the allegations about the governor emerged, allegations were made that the lieutenant governor had committed a number of sexual assaults.
Just when Virginia Democrats thought things couldn’t get any worse, the number 3 in the hierarchy (the attorney general) admitted that he had also “blacked up” when he was a student (presumably before some journalist uncovered it).
Chaos has ensued. What should the Virginia Democratic Party do next?
A US political commentator Perry Bacon Jr, made the interesting point that the punishments in these types of cases are always the one that is “politically convenient for the party”. He points out that one of the features of having a photograph in “blackface” is that it is easy to demonstrate that someone is in the wrong. He added that in some other States, courts have uncovered systematic attempts to prevent black people from voting. It is a bizarre world, Mr Bacon says, where systematic attempts to stop black people voting is considered acceptable, but ill-judged college indiscretions many years ago are a resignation offence. “We are punishing the most obvious, transparent kinds of racism, but not the most pernicious and impactful ones”, he adds.
Democrats’ reaction, in this case, is in part determined by how they reacted to other sets of allegations in the recent past. The cliché “zero tolerance” has been much used by Democrats in the past. “Zero tolerance” to allegations would presumably mean that people lose their jobs simply on the basis that an allegation is made. That would be a scary world to live in. Needless to say, Democrats have shown something much less than “zero tolerance” to the allegations in Virginia which otherwise would have resulted in the entire leadership team being wiped out.
This quickly takes everyone back to the hearings surrounding the confirmation of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanagh last year, in the face of allegations of sexual harassment. It seemed at the time that only two political reactions were possible – “I believe everything” or “I believe nothing”.
Amongst the many dramatic exchanges in the Kavanagh hearings, the following exchange between the confirmation committee’s lawyer and Christine Blasey Ford (who made the allegations against the judge) stood out. In it, the lawyer for the committee makes it clear the limitation of public hearings of this sort that was underway:
“Lawyer: Have you also educated yourself on the best way to get to memory and truth, in terms of interviewing victims of trauma … The best way to do it, the — the best practices for interviewing victims of trauma.
Lawyer: OK. Would you believe me if I told you that there’s no study that says that this setting … is the best way to do that?
Lawyer: Did you know that the best way to do it is to have a trained interviewer talk to you one-on-one in a private setting, and to let you do the talking, just let you do a narrative? Did you know that?
FORD: That makes a — a lot of sense.
Lawyer: It does make a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
Lawyer: And then to follow up, obviously, to fill in the details and — and ask for clarification. Does that make sense, as well?
MITCHELL: And — and the research is done by a lot of people in the child abuse field. Two of the more prominent ones in the sexual assault field are Geisel and Fisher, who’ve talked about it, and it’s called a cognitive interview. This is not a cognitive interview.”
These issues are ones that we at Verita are very familiar with. They involve a simple, but difficult trade-off – is it more open, more transparent to do something in the open? Or will you find out more, and end up with greater truth if you work in a confidential environment?
It goes without saying that a political environment is the opposite of the sort of conditions that are conducive to fair and objective decision-making, but we all nevertheless live in a political world.
At Verita, we carry out our interviews in private, preferably recording and transcribing them so that the interviewee can look over their words and make sure that they are happy with them. I don’t doubt that this method gets to information that wouldn’t be available if we used a more public approach. Our investigations are carried out professionally and impartially to uncover the truth and help to right the wrongs, by examining the failings and recommend processes to minimise or eliminate the incidents happening again.
There is no simple answer to these issues, but some things are certain:
- Action must be based on facts. If we get into the habit of taking decisions without really knowing what happened, chaos will surely follow.
- Establishing facts needs investigation. The investigation requires a good process. A good process requires thought. The simple fact of it being more public does not mean that it will always be clearer on what happened. The inconclusive Kavanagh hearings demonstrate this clearly.
- Finally, if you are going to investigate, do it properly. There are endless examples of issues that haven’t gone away because they haven’t been investigated properly. I am sure that the First Minister of Scotland has views on that issue.
Speaking about events in Virginia, New York Times columnist David Brooks commented:
“I’m always really slow to call for resignations … it makes everyone feel good … but I really believe in investigating…”
He is surely right.
If you would like to learn more about investigations & reviews regarding allegations that have been made, or might be made, please do not hesitate to contact Kieran Seale on 020 7494 5670 or [email protected]. Please note that whenever you speak to someone at Verita, it is always in the strictest of confidence.