Thursday, 2 September 2010

Should you open your doors to honesty?

A siege mentality is an easy position to take when the media bangs on your front door demanding a press statement as it investigates the very heart of your business, or even your own personal life. Some of these events are a storm in a tea cup, whilst others are a full scale crisis. It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference until the moment is past and you can see it from a different perspective.

Two very different ways of handling crisis management have been in the press recently and both have got me thinking on whether the strategy was effective. One is William Hague’s recent personal statement; the other is the British government and the Catholic Church’s decision to cover up the involvement of a priest in an IRA bombing.

Not only are the two cases quite different – but the way the allegations are dealt with are also at polar opposites. However, neither is totally without fault.

Let’s start with the 1972 Claudy Bombings which saw nine people killed and 30 injured as a result of three car bombs. Relatives of the victims and the walking wounded have had to wait 38 years for a report into the investigation to get some idea of who was to blame.

The report is baffled by the fact the British Police failed to interview Father James Chesney, an alibi witness for one suspect and a suspect in his own right, despite British intelligence keeping close tabs on the staunch republican priest. The conclusion that seems unchallenged is that a political deal was struck between the British government and the Catholic Church to hush up the situation. The Catholic Church was anti-violence and was keen to remain at arms length from the IRA.

It is highly likely that Chesney knew significant information that was never brought out purely because he wasn’t questioned. Even if a deal was struck, surely some sort of discussion should have taken place. That aside, the main crisis management of the situation was to cover up and protect the Catholic Church.

I understand the situation was volatile and complex, but I don’t feel that this was the right course of action. We know from other scandals, that the Catholic Church liked to cover things up. A siege mentality is a natural position when things are uncertain – but again, it doesn’t mean it is right.
Equally, the decision to move a man less than an hour away from his home to avoid police investigation looks cowardly.

Rumour took over from fact and hundreds believed they knew who carried out the attacks and also knew of the cover-up by association. This can hardly have left those in the community with any faith in the church, the government or the police. We will never know Father Chesney’s true involvement (he died in 1980), but there is more than enough evidence pointing towards the republican sympathiser’s involvement at some level.
Equally, the Catholic Church’s reputation has been tarnished by those who perceived they knew the truth and lost faith in the church on both sides of the divide.

Almost forty years later there’s a second problem when the truth, as it often does, comes out. The Catholic Church is wrapped in scandal for the second time within a year as it shows its backhanded way of dealing with priests involved in murderous activities.
In my opinion, the Catholic Church should have made an example of Chesney. Decisive action to out, rather than protect Chesney, would have sent a sharp warning to the rest of the Church. Putting pressure on other republican sympathisers to strongly denounce the IRA, Chesney and the ‘shame’ brought by the un-Christian actions of Claudy would have made it more difficult for other clergy to stray down the same path.

Embarrassing, yes, but at the end of the day the actions were understandably outside their control. Justice could then have been served and fact replaces rumour. More importantly this ticking time-bomb wasn’t going to explode.
The opposite could be said of William Hague. A smirk, a nudge, an offhand and baseless joke about all the Tories being gay has turned into front page headlines. It is a calculated risk and may work, but Mr Hague has legitimised a rumour by directly referring to the story.

He could have made exactly the same statement avoiding the ‘gay’ slur altogether. It’s a strong story to openly discuss the heartache of not being able to have children. Mourning the death of an unborn baby isn’t easy. Yes the rumours might have still floated about, but it would never be front page news.

From what I gather, it is based on the fact that two men have shared a hotel room in the 21st Century and they look ‘chummy’ despite a big age gap. May be I should feel upset that when I interviewed the then Tory leader, soaked to the skin after a downpour in Halifax, he didn’t wink at me and show me to his room to warm up. Or may be it is just bunkum – this certainly isn’t another Mark Oaten.

I’ve roomed with – not just one other man- but several. I even shared a bed with a Frenchman ahead of a rowing race in London as there were no single beds available. Does this make me gay? No it doesn’t. I could still be proved wrong about Hague, but I think it a ridiculous story created by the sleazier end of political journalism. There is a difference between being open and replying honestly, and fanning the flames of a storm in the tea cup story.

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