Associates who insist they didn’t ‘know’ about Weinstein’s abuses spent years deluding themselves for an easy life
The journalist Gitta Sereny spent decades trying to crack the smooth sophistry that had saved Hitler’s architect Albert Speer from the gallows. If he was running wartime armaments production in Berlin during the mass evacuation of Jews, surely he knew their terrible fate? At long last, Speer would allow that he “sensed” it.
Sereny replies: “You say you sensed something. But you cannot ‘sense’ in a void; ‘sensing’ is an inner realisation of knowledge. Basically if you ‘sensed’ then you knew.” Speer shakes his head and thanks God that Gitta was not prosecuting him at Nuremberg.
I always think about Sereny’s words when a web of terrible events is revealed. None, of course, have a scintilla of the Holocaust’s magnitude, but still they raise questions about who knew. Indeed about what it actually means to “know”.
When the horrifying scope of Jimmy Savile’s crimes was exposed I asked a former tabloid executive, a long-time trader in kiss-and-tells, if he’d ever heard rumours. Well, he said, the occasional young woman would pitch up claiming Savile had molested her, without proof, so she was sent away. But, no, he didn’t know. What about those girls? He bristled: look, nobody knew.
Knowing is a strange business. You can “know” and yet not know. Evidence of dark deeds may present itself, dance right across your path, be the source of gossip and in-jokes; become so enmeshed in everyday life it sets the protocols by which people work. Yet when a scandal breaks people still cover their mouths and cry “Who knew?”
At the Weinstein offices as The New Yorker exposé was posted online, staff read it crying and trembling. One executive reports: “People were having a wave of retroactive memories.” The most long-standing employees were unpicking things they’d seen over many years: actresses crying in bathrooms, muffin-basket apologies dispatched next day, hastily cancelled meetings, dropped projects.
Quentin Tarantino, whose career as a director was made by Harvey Weinstein, has said: “I knew enough to do more than I did. I didn’t take responsibility for what I heard.” No kidding. Not from second-hand rumours either. His drinking buddy Weinstein was preying upon his then girlfriend, Mira Sorvino, and she told him about the hotel room assaults. But Tarantino filed them under an infatuation, “a Svengali thing”, a “1950s secretary being chased around her desk by her boss” jape.
As the screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, who worked on Miramax movies in the glory days, wrote in an excoriating blog, the only thing worse than Weinstein’s behaviour is “the current flood of sanctimonious denial and condemnation . . . We knew something was bubbling under. Something odious. Something rotten.” The writers, PRs, actors, agents, producers, directors, financiers: “Everybody-f***ing-knew.”
In her fascinating book Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril, Margaret Heffernan examines the prevalence of this mindset. In law, wilful blindness is information you could know, should know, but have chosen not to know. This principle means that if stopped at an airport with a suitcase full of heroin it is no defence to say that you did not look inside. Wilful blindness, Heffernan argues, is how an affair can remain unacknowledged for years, why US troops in Iraq were silent about human rights violations in Abu Ghraib, how the Catholic Church concealed endemic child abuse, why Enron bankers or those flogging sub-prime mortgages did not confront the financial apocalypse they sensed was looming. It was easier not to “know”.
In Britain, there is no better example of wilful blindness than the Rotherham sex abuse scandal. Jayne Senior, the youth worker who blew the whistle, spent years listening to victims, collating reports. But as she shoved this material in the faces of councillors, police and social services, it was as though she was invisible. They simply refused to know.
Denis MacShane, MP for Rotherham for 18 years, throughout the reign of the grooming gangs, has always maintained he knew nothing about the 1,400 victims. But he does not refute that on March 24, 2006 he attended a conference in Rotherham hosted by Jayne Senior called Every Child Matters where she and other experts gave presentations about the crimes. Indeed MacShane made a speech! Yet after my Times interview with Senior was published, he summoned me to his house to swear on his life that right until it broke he had no knowledge of the scandal. What about that conference? It was just another constituency event. So many, they blur into one. He repeated over and over: he did not know.
This state of knowing-but-not-knowing fascinates me. It would be easy to suggest these claims are straightforward, back-covering lies. But it seems more complicated: rather a mental self-preservation. “Knowing” requires action, responsibility. “Knowing” means a moral imperative to ask questions, start rows, kick others out of their complacency. It risks reprisals, isolation, hatred, for what could be in the end a futile fight. It takes courage to know.
In Rotherham (as the MP Sarah Champion recently found) it entailed accusations of racism and upsetting a cosy Labour Party cabal. In Hollywood, as Scott Rosenberg writes, it meant “biting the hand that fed you caviar in St Barth’s”.
In such circumstances, who wouldn’t prefer empty-headed ignorance, keeping quiet and leaving the grave duties that come with tough knowledge to others with bigger hearts and thicker hides. When that terrible thing you “sense” is finally exposed you can shake your head in innocent wonder. Because sometimes before you can know, first you must care.