Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Scrutiny and the Historical Record

'History will judge us kindly', Churchill told Roosevelt and Stalin at the Tehran Conference in 1943; when asked how he could be so sure, he responded: 'because I shall write the history'. And so he did, in the six massive volumes of The Second World War. (1)

I have been reading Senator Le Marquand's letter to Trevor Pitman with some disquiet, because he says that - with the appointment of Deputy Daniel Wimberley, to the BDO Scrutiny Panel - that "the sub-panel will now have three out of four members who have already committed themselves to a position which is critical of my handling of the disciplinary issues in relation to Mr G Power".

If I was Deputy Wimberley, I would certainly be insulted by the suggestion that any previous criticisms of Senator Le Marquand (fro example, regarding his handling of the disciplinary issues relating to Graham Power) should thereby indicate that he is going to come to this particular issue with the closed mind, a mind that is already prejudiced and has formed conclusions.

From what I have seen of Deputy Wimberley, he is an independent thinker who will scrutinise all the evidence impartially before coming to conclusions, try to find amidst what may be contradictory interpretations of facts, or the best hypothesis is that fits those facts.

By rejecting membership of the panel of Deputy Wimberley based upon past criticisms, Senator Le Marquand is surely open to the criticism that he wishes to stack the committee in such way that it cannot come to any conclusions without dissenting voices that would be critical, even indirectly, of himself. For what he is clearly asking is for people on the committee who have never made a critical remark of his handling of Graham Power with regard to the suspension and eventual collapse of disciplinary action. But such people could invariably have the criticism levied on them that they had already made up their minds in such a way as to prejudice their own conclusions on the matter of the BDO report. Why else would he make such a fuss?

The voting record on matters concerning Operation Rectangle tend to be either for or against without abstentions. Really if one was looking for the kind of lack of bias that Senator Le Marquand clearly wishes to have, only someone who had abstained would be suitable. What he is asking, therefore, is something quite impossible! What is needed on the scrutiny panel is someone who is prepared to look at evidence honestly, and I do not think Senator Le Marquand really means to fault Deputy Wimberley on that count, and I think he has put pen to paper without really thinking seriously about the implications of what he is saying.

What I think the question that should be at the forefront of everyone's mind is whether this scrutiny panel is prepared to weigh up the evidence in the same manner that a historian of ancient texts might also do so.

I have often thought that an ancient historian might be better at getting to the truth than the kind of educated professional or organisation that is usually given the task of investigation or scrutiny. This is because the ancient historian has to work with many sources. These sources all had their own biases, and a historian is aware that there is no such thing as a completely neutral fact. Even the selection of particular facts, which cannot be disputed regarding their factuality, can also show bias either by the way in which particular facts are presented or by the way in which other facts which might be equally significant are ignored.

Even with such recent history as the Second World War, historians are only just beginning to re-examine in-depth the dominant narratives, mostly presented by Winston Churchill in his own books after the war. For example,

It is worth noting that Chamberlain could hardly have been that bad a choice as prime minister, or Churchill would hardly have seconded his nomination - a fact he somehow omitted from his memoirs. As a literary artist, however, when writing his memoirs, Churchill knew that when truth was stranger than fiction, you should always opt for the latter. (1)

In his memoirs, he undoubtedly glamorised his role and gave government ministers bit-parts of timidity and short-sightedness that even they did not fully deserve. Churchill did not see the road ahead with the clarity he later claimed. Though he subsequently described the remilitarisation of the Rhineland in March 1936 as a golden missed opportunity, he did not call for retaliatory action at the time; and though he called for the production of more bomber planes he was not so concerned at first with the fighter planes that eventually won the Battle of Britain. He also credited Hitler with a far more rigid and orderly foreign policy ('nicely calculated and timed, unfolding stage by stage') than was actually the case. (3)

Francis Neilson, reviewing "The Gathering Storm", and its own selection of evidence, notes that:

In the days to come serious-minded people will not be satisfied with merely part of the history of events that led up to the war; they will want to know the facts, irrespective of whether they come from a German source or any other, just as they did after the last war. It is not the business of historians to defend this or that State, or this or that politician; if they are honorable men, free to speak clearly, they must sift the data they have collected and present to their public an intelligible statement of what occurred. (2)

That is surely what anyone on the scrutiny panel should be doing - sifting the data, and presenting an intelligible statement. It is not their business to defend any Ministers, nor to set out to attack him, but to be free to speak clearly on the matter, regardless of any personal prejudices.

And there is more reason why a historical approach would be a good one to take in looking at the BDO Report and the history of its formation:

Historians have long had to struggle with the problems of what might count as an acceptable source (until relatively recently, for example, oral material was considered to provide only poor and unreliable evidence, how reliable might any individual source be, how to deal with multiple and possibly conflicting sources, how many independent sources were enough (and when were sources truly independent) and to what extent more general statements could be justified on the basis of particular sources.(4)

In history, for example, all sources extant at a particular date may support a particular historical statement, but later historians may gain access to material that not only contradicts the earlier sources but suggests that they are not to be relied on.

Keith Jenkins also shows how interpretation can "colour facts".

Jenkins does not deny that there are "facts about the past" that we can definitely know (for example, dates of well-attested events), but considers that "such facts, though important, are 'true' but trite within the larger issues historians consider" [Jenkins, 1991, p. 32]. The larger issues are "not only what happened but how and why and what these things meant and mean" [Jenkins, 1991, p. 33]. It is this unavoidably interpretive aspect tohistorical writing that Jenkins considers central, but interpretation is utterly discursive. It is not the "brute facts" but how they are arrayed and located within historians' narratives that matter. Moreover, even the documentary sources that historians, in Jenkins's view, "fetishise" do not have significance as evidence until they are mobilized as evidence for or against particular interpretations.(4)

As I see it, the BDO Alto report takes raw data from Operation Rectangle and presents it as a "review", in other words, assembles it into a coherent picture. In other words, it gives significance to the evidence in the way it obtains, handles and finally interprets it. It is, after all, a "review".

Report to the Home Affairs Minister and Accounting Officer, Home Affairs Department. Operation Rectangle (Historical Child Abuse Enquiry) review of the efficient and effective use of resources.

Questions to ask:

Was the BDO review adequate for presenting "the whole picture", or are there omissions which would give rise to a different interpretation?

If there is an alternative explanatory narrative for the raw data (as given, for instance by Lenny Harper), how can we decide which best fits, or whether this is special pleading?

N.T. Wright suggests that a good hypothesis needs to do various things:

A hypothesis essentially a construct, thought up by a human mind, which offers itself as a story about a particular set of phenomena, in which the story, which is bound to be an interpretation of those phenomena, also offers an explanation of them. (5)

In the case of the scrutiny review, this rule is certainly worth considering:

It must include the data. The bits and pieces of evidence must be incorporated, without being squeezed out of shape any more than is inevitable, granted that I am looking at them through my own eyes, not from a god's-eye view. (5)

For the BDO Alto Review, and an examination of it, any exclusion of significant data must be looked at carefully, because this could squeeze the review out of shape. Is the review straightforward, or does it ignores a good deal of the evidence, and does BDO supply the addition of all kinds of speculations, which are inferred but not present in the raw data, and which have not been tested significantly. Are alternative explanations as good, or do they also distort evidence? Are matters of dispute significant to the overall BDO presentation, or would it stand even if they were left out?

It would be most unlikely that the BDO Alto review got everything right - I think this may be taken as "common ground" - the question really is whether they presented an accurate general picture that interpreted the facts well enough (albeit with some items being questionable), or whether they distorted significant elements in their presentation and selection of the data, so that the general picture is inaccurate.

I don't think one needs to be prejudiced to look at that openly and honestly, and I am surprised that Senator Le Marquand assumes that Deputy Wimberley and indeed the whole scrutiny panel would be unable to do so. To consider that is not to prejudge the issue, nor is it to be committed to any position that is critical of Senator Le Marquand, who accepted the BDO review in good faith as a fair assessment.

That the review should be questioned is not a direct criticism of Senator Le Marquand, but simply of the fact that more evidence has emerged which suggests that the BDO review may not be as accurate as it first appears.

To ignore that, and to question the motivation of members such as Deputy Wimberley, as Senator Le Marquand appears to do, is really not worthy of him, and I do hope he retracts or modifies what he has written to make it quite clear that he does not believe this, because that is what he appears to be doing.

(2) Winston Churchill's War Memoirs: Review by Francis Neilson
(3) Churchill: The Wilderness Years by Robert Pearce, History Review, 2007
(4) The Historian as Auditor: Facts, Judgements and Evidence. C.J. Napier, The Accounting
Historians Journal, 2002
(5) The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright, 1992


Anonymous said...

Once again, a lucid and well-reasoned posting. Thank you.
I must agree with you about ILM's apparent knee-jerk reaction. He has demonstrated consistently that he does not react well to any form of criticism. Indeed, his usual reaction is to engage in legalistic waffle in an attempt to both belittle the "opposition" and to obfuscate the issue.
It also appears that (whether he realises it or not) he is of the frame of mind that those who do not wholly agree with him are necessarily against him - i.e. the enemy!
As an impartial but interested observer, I am now more than ever interested to see how this issue develops.
Thanks once again.

Anonymous said...

Top class post Mr Prof

voiceforchildren said...


What can one say? Ian Le Marquand just doesn't know when to put that filthy great shovel of his down.

One would have thought if he had nothing to hide and everything was above board, then it wouldn't make a blind bit of difference who sat on the Scrutiny Panel. Indeed if he was that confident he would/could suggest they find the most prejudice members there are to scrutinise this Report in order to give more weight to the theory there's nothing to hide.

If there's nothing to find, then it can't be found, no matter who is looking for it!

TonyTheProf said...

Well to be fair to Senator Le Marquand, and I tend to bend over backwards to try and be fair, I can think of at least one politician who might make political capital out of the situation just for the publicity, especially in election year. I could understand his concern if that had been the case.

But to take umbrage at Deputy Wimberley, a politician who has never ever shown the slightest ambition to garner publicity for the sake of it... !!

voiceforchildren said...


The point is, if there's nothing to hide, then there's nothing to fear. ILM shouldn't be trying to stop ANYBODY looking at this. The fact that he is just arouses suspicion.

Anonymous said...

I agree totally about Daniel W. He appears to be the sort of bloke who will examine the facts carefully and objectively and then form a balanced view. I feel sure that if he were to discover that ILM & Co were completely in the right he would not hesitate to say so publicly, thus vindicating their position.
On the other hand, I suspect that ILM & Co believe in their hearts that their performance will not stand up to scrutiny - especially by someone as intellectually able as Daniel W and so ............

rico sorda said...

Another good posting Tony. The Blogs are doing sterling work.