Thursday, 23 January 2014

Asking Rennard to apologise is outrageous

It's outrageous that the story in the media about Lord Rennard has reached a point where the focus is on whether he will apologise to make it all go away. How could any reasonable person be happy with that?

He is accused of repeatedly harassing and fondling women within the Lib Dem party, in one case of getting two women alone in his house and then trying to prevent them from leaving when his advances were rejected, in another of putting his hands down women's dresses and "places where they had absolutely no business being". The broader accusation seems to be that he routinely abused his powerful position in the party because women felt that they may harm their political career by saying 'no' to his casting couch or making allegations against him. Serious stuff.

On the other hand, Lord Rennard denies doing any of these things, stating that this is part of a smear campaign by people with a personal grudge against him. He points out that most of these complaints have never been put to him, that whenever claims against him have been investigated he has been cleared, and that all of this is understandably having a terrible effect on his physical and mental health. Whatever the outcome or the truth, Lord Rennard's name and reputation may never recover.

We don't know what truth lies beneath all this, which is actually the main problem. However, it is clear that something serious has happened - either Rennard has abused his position to molest women, or else Rennard is the victim of a sustained public smear campaign trying to pin serious criminal offences on him.

Yet we are supposed to think that an apology, perhaps even a half-hearted or "heavily qualified" apology, might be enough to make it all go away? That is what Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is apparently suggesting.

But if the women are right, Clegg is telling them that it's OK for a powerful man to exercise a kind of unofficial droit du seigneur within the Liberal Democrats, so long as he says sorry if he's caught. While if Rennard is right, Clegg is asking him to admit what may amount to serious criminal offences (indecent assault carries a maximum 10 year prison sentence) despite being innocent, just to keep everyone quiet and avoid embarrassing the party. 

I don't agree with Nick; both alternatives are appalling - who could possibly think that an apology then everyone going quietly about their business is a fair outcome here?

The Lib Dems love to talk about compromise, negotiation, fairness, finding a happy medium. If they stand for anything at all as a party, being neither one thing nor the other would be it. But when you are faced with serious wrongdoing, attempting to compromise really boils down to excusing the perpetrators and insulting the victims.

Situations like this, along with the ongoing accusations against Mike Hancock MP, don't call for compromise. They call for proper investigation to find the truth, support and sympathy for the victims and punishment for the perpetrators. Unfortunately, this seems to go against the Lib Dems' instinct and the result is not only a political car crash but the repeated denial of justice to the victims (whoever that actually is).

It would be nice if people in the media would stop buying the idea that this story is all about whether Rennard decides to apologise. The story is firstly about uncovering what Lord Rennard (and Mike Hancock) actually did, and secondly investigating why the Liberal Democrats seem repeatedly uninterested in finding out the truth, because it's starting to look like a habit.

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