Everybody needs to be supervised

There are three obvious things about the way media works. One is the tendency to over-simplify the issue. A second is that a feeding frenzy can develop in a desperate effort to allocate the blame to some individual – usually an effort to demonise the most senior person involved. A third is how quickly the media circus moves on once they get the smell on the wind of something more interesting.
After a surfeit of coverage on the plight of Irish Water, suddenly the water story evaporated when a homeless man was found dead within a stone’s throw of Leinster House. The focus of the media changed from the hapless John Tierney of Irish Water to Alan Kelly, the minister responsible for housing.
Now it’s moved on to Swinford’s Áras Attracta and the knives are out for Pat Healy, the National Director for Social Care at the HSE.
Immediately after the Prime Time programme Healy was interviewed by an unusually exercised David McCullagh. Sensing the outrage that was enveloping all who had watched the rough regime perpetrated on the innocent in Áras Attracta and the terrible betrayal of trust involved, McCullagh went for the jugular, effectively blaming Healy.
When Healy tried to explain how the HSE was dealing with it, McCullagh kept interrupting, refusing to let Healy have his say. In an apparent effort to frustrate an admirably calm Healy, McCullagh claimed, a bit improbably I thought, that he (McCullagh) wouldn’t be able to sleep that night thinking of Áras Attracta.
The question – how could it happen? – was left hanging in the air as if there was some mystery to it all. There isn’t. In any institution or system, things go wrong, when those in positions of power are not properly supervised. Full stop. The plain and simple truth is that things go wrong when systems of supervision fail. Instead of empty, self-congratulatory, PR guff on ‘mission statements’ hanging on walls of institutions, what’s needed is a simpler statement in capital letters:
And when those in positions of power and absolute control over vulnerable people, as the Swinford carers’ seemed to be, are not subject to adequate supervision and monitoring then very ordinary people can find themselves operating and justifying behaviour that to the rest of the human race is absolutely unacceptable.
It happens. Politicians claimed for mobile phones they didn’t have and for calls they didn’t make. Planning officials gave planning permission not because the situation demanded it but because financial inducements tempted them. Bankers dished out loans to clients they knew were in no position to repay them. Those in positions of trust, in church and in society, abused innocent children.
The common factor, running through that list of crimes and misdemeanours, is that there was a failure of supervision and regulation and where there’s inadequate (or no) supervision and regulation ‘ordinary’ people find themselves betraying public trusts.
That’s part of it. The other part of it is the Original Sin factor. We’re flawed, all of us. Ordinary people find themselves doing terrible things because they get trapped in a culture of compliance with attitudes or values that they haven’t the courage to resist.
Prime Time itself is a good example of this when an investigation into the hatchet-job carried out a few years ago on Fr Kevin Reynolds revealed a mind-set within RTE that facilitated standards that were less than acceptable. ‘Group-think’ was the term used and the truth of the matter is that group think exists and thrives within institutions and systems.
There’s no point in indulging a frenzied media in a desperate search of a convenient scapegoat who can be suitably demonised to make the self-righteous feel better about themselves. Of course the law has to take its course and it’s important that it take its course, in Áras Attracta as elsewhere.
But sorting out cultures of abuse and irresponsibility is not something that can be done overnight. It can be a complex business that demands a calm, analytical and measured response. And ensuring that systems are set in place that undo the group-think mentality, especially where that mentality is deeply-rooted, demands a root and branch examination, a calm analytical approach and, above all, a determination to introduce the kind of monitoring that will ensure long-term acceptance and monitoring of standards of care rather than quick fixes of limited bouts of extra ‘training’. It will take more than ‘training’ to fix this. Pat Healy was right not to allow himself to be bounced into opting for easy and quick solutions no matter how shrill David McCullagh or others become. This is something that won’t be sorted by Christmas no matter how exercised television or radio presenters become. Group-think and mind-sets take years to change.
Finally, there’s something more than vaguely troubling about the RTE juggernaut in full self-righteous flight, pumping out its publicity for days, and then cheer-leading the demonisation of individuals, without the benefit of judge or jury. People in glass-houses . . . and all that.
And yet, here’s a question: would change take place in institutions like Áras Attracta without the whistle-blowers who reported it and the programme-makers who rubbed our noses in it?
Sometimes institutions, reluctant to reform, need the shock of public humiliation to get their act together, especially when the vulnerable innocent are at risk.
The Áras Attracta problem – and the other similar problems in institutions all over Ireland – won’t be sorted by another tranche of ‘training days’.
It’s more complex than that.
Meanwhile we need to get those notices up straightaway, everywhere, especially where individuals are entrusted with the care of the innocent and vulnerable: Everybody needs to be supervised.

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  1. Mary O'Connor says:

    Thought provoking and measured. Would I be better in similar situation. Thank you Brendan.

  2. Philip Mortell says:

    Excellent article, as usual, Brendan.
    Does “Everyone needs to be supervised” include clergy at all levels?

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