Jimmy Savile, courtrooms and notions of ‘them’ and ‘us’

First discover hidden bias, secondly dismantle it

Institutionalised class and power differentials give entrenched authorities an advantage that is not interrogated sufficiently. Joe P from the down-at-heel estate, who left school at 16, has a part-time labouring job and no savings, is unlikely to win legal arguments against opposition with unlimited funding.

Bias in favour of a particular set of understandings helps to explain why some people are believed more than others.  Thinking of the Jimmy Savile case, a TV celebrity enmeshed in several power networks, we have learnt that young boys were not believed, girls ‘at risk’ were not believed, hospital patients were not believed, and patients in a secure mental hospital didn’t raise complaints because they already knew they would not be believed. That’s why they were chosen as victims.

Choosing who you pick a fight with is just as important as what you pick a fight about. Our culture conditions us, as a society, to respect people who have attained positions of power and responsibility, a conditioning which makes the achievement of social change difficult because networks of authority act to reinforce their own advantages. Power networks are similar to families in that members tend to believe others in the same group more than those from groups who live differently and socialise differently. People in power networks also tend to have access to many more resources than Joe P.

Reflecting on a judgement in London last week, in which an amateur blogger lost a libel action against a local authority chief executive, the outcome did not surprise me because:

  • The council had voted to fund the chief executive’s action, so it was effectively an individual versus an institution — the institution which runs the county where the blogger lives.
  • The judge, an acknowledged expert in media law, concluded that the evidence provided to him by public officials was more convincing than the evidence of one amateur blogger.

I am not commenting on the judge’s decision, which is of course explained logically and in great detail, and given the facts presented to him makes sense to me as a reader unacquainted with all the fine points of the case. Instead, I am commenting on the social context in which we all make decisions. Do we make enough effort to discover our biases and then to deconstruct them?

The mid-20th century American social critic and author Vance Packard (1914-1996) wrote in The Hidden Persuaders,[1] referring to an experiment reported in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, that “people’s memories were ‘significantly better’ in recalling material that harmonized with their own political viewpoint or ‘frame of reference’. There was a clear tendency for them to forget the material that didn’t harmonize with their own preconceived notions”.

The need to engage with people who are, on the surface, unlike ourselves is fundamental if we are to understand each other better. As Sir Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, at a private White House lunch on June 26th 1954, “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”.  How much more democratic it would be if we could achieve a political system in which there is far more jaw-jaw taking place outside the courtroom, and in which there is greater emphasis on reaching consensus. Here in the UK we are too adversarial, in politics, in law and in business. To become more co-operative, we first have to start dismantling the biases which perpetuate notions of ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Pat Dodd Racher


[1] Page 152 of the 1962 Pelican edition. The Hidden Persuaders was originally published by David McKay in 1957.

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