THE TABLET THE I NTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY
Founded in 1840
SINS AND OMISSIONS
The late Jimmy Savile won a place in the hearts of the British public as an unusual but amusing entertainer – “everybody’s friend” – who was also a productive charity fund-raiser. The public now knows he was a long-term abuser of adolescent girls. He knew how to play the holy fool to perfection, and the public took him at face value mainly because that other, larger national treasure, the BBC, endorsed him. The corporation would not have done that if it knew otherwise – or so the public is invited to think.
Thus his exposure as a rapacious paedophile shatters public illusions not just about the man himself, but also about the BBC. It had good reasons to be suspicious of him, but ignored them. It let the public down badly, thereby allowing the rampant exploitation and abuse of young teenagers to continue. But then it compounded its complicity by making a complete mess of the one chance it had to make amends by telling the truth at last. The highly respected BBC television current affairs programme Newsnight was almost ready to broadcast last December an exposé of Savile’s sexual activities, complete with witness statements, when the project was inexplicably abandoned at the last minute. As the Catholic Church knows to its cost, paedophilia has a unique capacity to excite public outrage, exceeded only by suggestions of an official cover-up.
The Savile affair is the subject of two BBC-commissioned inquiries, and various other hospitals and institutions where the abuse occurred are also being investigated. Whether or not there was a cover-up was the central issue probed by MPs when they questioned the BBC’s new director general, George
Entwistle, on Tuesday. His first line of defence, which struck many Select Committee members as unconvincing, was that he had to work within the BBC’s internal structures and procedures. When warned that a Newsnight investigation was under way into Savile’s affairs, he said he was “determined not to show undue interest” in case that was interpreted as pressure on the journalists involved. Meanwhile, they were told by Helen Boaden, head of news at the BBC, that they had to approach the Savile story as if the man were still alive – advice that Mr Entwistle later endorsed. But it was because the dead cannot sue for libel that the investigation was launched after he had died. The difficulty was that many of the witnesses were adolescent girls at the time, in the care of institutions. They were girls whose evidence might be attacked as teenage fantasy, or whose personalities were too vulnerable to withstand the stress of a court appearance.
Exacerbated by mistakes made by Newsnight’s editor Peter Rippon, these were disastrous misjudgements that set compliance with bureaucratic procedures and with the BBC’s cautious editorial guidelines – toughened in the aftermath of controversies surrounding the BBC’s past output – above the search for the truth. That was worse than a cover-up. Told that a national icon was likely to be exposed as a fraud, and knowing that the BBC was bound to be deeply implicated in the scandal, Mr Entwistle should at once have demanded to know more. Instead, it looks as if he shrugged and turned away, thereby epitomising the BBC’s whole attitude to Savile’s criminal activities when he was alive. So now comes the reckoning …
PROCEED WITH CARE
It is vital that elderly and infirm people, and their families and friends, should have as much confidence as is reasonably possible that their care in hospitals or other institutions is being conducted in accordance with the highest medical and ethical standards. This is especially true when they are nearing the end of their lives. Increasing numbers are being treated according to the Liverpool Care Pathway (LCP) – national guidelines for the treatment of dying patients. But it is worrying that the confidence necessary for the LCP to function well has begun to ebb, as evidenced by a number of doctors and others who have noticed things that have disturbed them.
It is the plain duty of the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to respond to these concerns, discover whether they are soundly based, and apply whatever remedies are needed. But he has decided to do nothing of the sort. He was asked by Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark, who is vice president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and chairman of the bishops’ Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship, to investigate the claims by several doctors that the LCP was becoming in practice a form of euthanasia. It was being used, they maintained, to hasten death deliberately.
Given that confidence in the LCP is essential to the peace of mind and well-being of those subject to it, as well as their loved ones, this refusal is inexplicable. Archbishop Smith did not say the allegations were well founded. He said they needed to be looked at. He is well known as a responsible commen-
tator on issues of medical ethics, as this and previous governments have found. He voices the concerns of a body of medical professionals that ought to be heeded.
The medical issues concern mainly the withdrawal of food and especially liquid when patients, in the terminal stages of their condition, no longer seem to be receiving any benefit from them. Usually they are by then heavily sedated and they are not in pain or distress of any kind. Nevertheless, watching relatives may begin to believe that they are being deliberately starved to death or encouraged to die through dehydration. This may be a misunderstanding on their part, but it could also be true. It is an obvious flaw in the LCP that such doubts can arise. Merely to say that despite these doubts the Department of Heath has confidence in it, or that many practitioners do, is not adequate reassurance. On the contrary, it is alarming.
The issues are not as easy as they may at first seem. The withdrawal of treatment knowing that it is likely to have a certain result is not the same as intending to cause that result, a distinction that the ethical principle of “double effect” and the criminal law of homicide both recognise. But both also recognise the sanctity of life. Respect for that principle needs to be at the heart of all treatment for the dying. The Health Secretary must satisfy public opinion that this principle is still being fully applied, and that the medical care of the terminally ill has not been infected with a utilitarian spirit or dictated by considerations of cost – or even that the law is not being subtly subverted, and euthanasia is creeping in by the back door.
2 | THE TABLET | 27 October 2012