In recent years, I have met and been in contact with many, many professionals working in education and other fields who have had to stay publicly silent with stories that they want or feel the need to tell.
There are many reasons that they have been unable to speak but most of the time it has been because they have feared repercussions for their careers or faced toxic workplace cultures where allegiance to a name or system has been prioritised over honesty and values.
Often these stories come to light when their tellers have put enough distance between themselves and the stages upon which the stories played out for them to feel safe, emotionally, financially or both.
On occasions described as “too honest” and “lacking in political understanding”, I have always found it hard to hide the truth or keep quiet in the face of wrong-doing.
Or worded differently, I have always found it hard to lie.
I understand all the stuff about white lies maybe being ok if they don’t hurt anyone.
About Father Christmas.
About teaching children an easy version of maths and science when they are too young to understand the complicated version.
And I also understand that children lying to adults might be viewed as a “normal” part of growing up, to help children try out dishonesty, test boundaries and understand the consequences of lying.
Having worked with care experienced children and children who have suffered the most terrible types of abuse from adults whose foremost purpose in life should have been to protect them, I also understand why many of those children had learned to lie as a way of staying alive. And why unlearning lying can take many, many years and only be possible when these children feel that the world is a safe place again.
I completely understand why Mo Farah has only now been able to tell his truth. And those who don’t understand owe it to him and other children and adults who have been abused and exploited to learn.
I know that my inability not to question can make people uncomfortable.
I know that I can be a spoil-sport at social functions, where it can be more fun to gossip about people and spread half-truths, rather than checking facts and looking for reasons to understand them.
And I know that it has been easier for some people to tell lies about me rather than talk to me about the truths that I have told and why.
The wonderful Mark Finnis talks about the truth in his book “Restorative Practice”, which I have turned to, over and over, when trying to help children understand the behaviour of others.
To paraphrase what Mark says: There is my truth, your truth and what actually happened.
Unless there was CCTV rolling when the recalled truth actually happened, we are unlikely to be able to confirm it with 100% accuracy.
But if you and I can reflect together on our two versions, unpick any tensions and be honest about possible harm caused, this will allow us a a way forward.
It may be that having a third person to facilitate this, objectively and with compassion, will help us tell our stories in a way that we can learn, find trust again and heal.
But what happens if we have a story that needs to be told so that future harm is prevented but which others might go to great lengths to keep secret?
Is it ok to say “oh but my truth might make people uncomfortable. My questions might mean that I lose friends and don’t get as many invites out”?
Is it ok, as a parent, or teacher, whose job is to teach children right from wrong, to say “you need to tell the truth when things aren’t right but I don’t have to”?
Is it ok, as a professional and public servant who subscribes to the Nolan Principles, to say “not this time”?
1. The Seven Principles of Public Life
The Seven Principles of Public Life (also known as the Nolan Principles) apply to anyone who works as a public office-holder. This includes all those who are elected or appointed to public office, nationally and locally, and all people appointed to work in the Civil Service, local government, the police, courts and probation services, non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs), and in the health, education, social and care services. All public office-holders are both servants of the public and stewards of public resources. The principles also apply to all those in other sectors delivering public services.
Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.
Holders of public office should be truthful.
Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour and treat others with respect. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.
Boris Johnson was a leader who lied and now he has been forced to step down.
A leader who didn’t adhere to the Nolan Principles.
A leader who barely managed the levels of honesty that we could except from a child or teenager in the fullest throes of “trying out lying”.
Maybe when the analysis is done, when the biographies are written, we will come to understand his inability to tell the truth. Maybe we’ll be able to explain it to our children and help them to see that leaders who lie don’t have to be the norm.
Maybe we’ll put it down to Boarding School Syndrome.
But for now, let’s hope that someone more suitable will take his place.
And let’s hope that a new dawn is rising, where the secret stories can be shared so that the learning and healing can start, sooner, rather than too late.