Thursday 27 April
'A Very English Scandal' by John Preston is a gripping account of the rise and fall of Jeremy Thorpe, who was leader of the Liberal party from 1967 to 1976. Thorpe was accused of conspiring to murder his former lover, Norman Scott, but was acquitted after a sensational trial. The credibility of the key prosecution witnesses was destroyed during cross-examination by Thorpe's formidable barrister, George Carman, who wisely decided not to call on his client to give evidence. After the case, the judge, Sir Joseph Cantlay, was heavily criticised for seeming to steer the jury in favour of acquittal, despite a substantial body of evidence against Thorpe and his co-defendants.
Subsequent revelations confirmed that Thorpe had sought over many years to conceal his colourful personal life and had been able to rely on friends and establishment contacts to suppress Scott's claims of a relationship. Scott had a history of mental illness, thus making it easier for the police to dismiss his allegations.
In reading the book, I was struck by Thorpe's massive sense of entitlement to his privileged position and his easy assumption that he could rely on others to sort out the various difficulties, financial as well as sexual, he got himself into. He used charm, flattery and wit to get what he wanted. Well- schooled in the establishment arts of hypocrisy, denial and cover-up, he managed to remain untouchable for a long time. Even after his downfall, and despite the fact that most people believed he was guilty, he still thought he merited a knighthood or a seat in the House of Lords.
Preston's book is written with style and the appeal of a thriller. It also has some very funny moments. My favourite sentence is a description of the lawyer, Lord Goodman, who bore some resemblance to the film director Alfred Hitchcock: 'With his mop of curly black hair, colossal girth and array of chins cascading down his shirtfront like swagged curtains, he cut an unforgettable figure.'
Friday 28 April
I fear I am in danger of being regarded as a bit of a 'media tart'. This is an unflattering term which refers to the willingness of some people to offer opinions on subjects whenever they are asked to do so by journalists. In my case, two examples will illustrate the point. Some months ago, I was asked to take part in a documentary on Scottish education being recorded by a young film-maker. I happily did so and then promptly forgot all about it. The producer emailed me recently to inform me that his work was now available, in several exciting episodes, on the internet. Publicity-seeking celebrities aside, few people find it entirely comfortable to look at themselves on the screen. Although I think I managed to avoid a Boris Johnson or Donald Trump-type gaffe, the experience of watching myself pontificating was not one I will want to repeat very often.
This week I was approached by a journalist who is writing a piece on the educational achievements of the SNP after 10 years in government. I resisted the temptation to give an entirely negative report and aimed for something more measured. It was good to have education high on the political agenda, I suggested, and some of the priorities of the government (e.g., improved provision for early years, reducing the attainment gap, widening access to higher education) were ones that would receive widespread support. There was, however, a significant gulf between aspiration and achievement. Too many initiatives took the form of boastful soundbites and the effectiveness of some policies was not subject to proper independent evaluation. The constant appeals to the undefined concept of 'excellence' and the first minister's frequent invocation of a 'world class' education system, were about as convincing as Theresa May's refrain of 'strong and stable' government. It will be interesting to see what use, if any, the journalist makes of my remarks.
I would point out that there is one major respect in which the term 'media tart' is entirely inappropriate in my case. Tarts are generally paid for services rendered. I am pleased to be able to report that no discreet envelopes have yet been pushed in my direction.
Saturday 29 April
The case of Ian Paterson, the Glasgow-born surgeon who has been found guilty of carrying out needless mastectomies and other procedures on a number of patients, raises important questions about how organisations deal with senior people who engage in unprofessional conduct. Colleagues had expressed concerns about Paterson's surgical practices for a number of years but, despite internal enquiries, no action was taken for a long time and patients continued to suffer. This pattern of bureaucratic reluctance to deal with powerful people who abuse their positions, has become very familiar, not just in medicine. It can be seen in central and local government, in the legal profession, in the academic world and in many other contexts.
How is it to be explained? Paterson was described by some of his victims as charming and charismatic and these are qualities that are often found among those who seek to manipulate others for their own advantage. To challenge someone who is superficially pleasant and courteous takes courage. Moreover, in internal enquiries, managers who are asked to investigate complaints may find it difficult to take an objective view of someone they see on a regular basis. Junior staff are afraid to voice concerns because of the career damage they may suffer for doing so. The hierarchical pecking order is particularly powerful in medicine.
But the problem is not just down to individuals. The corporate attitudes that are promoted within many organisations encourage denial and cover-up. Despite all the talk about effective leadership, a kind of collective gutlessness at the top can be detected. This is made worse by the corrosive PR mindset that is now widespread, which tries to bury bad news and put a positive spin on everything else. Furthermore, lawyers advise organisations to avoid saying anything that may imply liability, a strategy that certainly didn't work in Paterson's case since it is estimated that some £18 million in compensation has to be paid, and many more claims are in the pipeline. It is safe to predict that, as in so many similar episodes, it will be claimed that 'lessons have been learned' – until the next time.
Monday 1 May
The first day of May is a traditional spring festival but its historical significance is usually ignored by the BBC, which refers to it simply as a bank holiday. Nowadays anything with the word 'bank' in it is bound to be tarnished. The first day in May is also international workers' day, chosen by socialists and communists at the end of the 19th century following the Haymarket affair in Chicago, an event which carried huge significance for labour relations in America and beyond.
To confuse matters further, 'Mayday' uttered three times is an international distress signal. I always find bank holidays mildly distressing. Roads are congested, visitor attractions crowded and television offerings an unappealing mixture of recycled films, gushing tributes to the royal family and children's cartoons. Weather permitting, my solution will be a brisk walk undisturbed by floral festivals, political rallies or media intrusion.