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Ignorance should be no defence when things go wrong according to a new book

  • Date

    Tue 17 Dec 19

Linsey McGoey

Why is it people in positions of power escape justice when things go wrong?

That’s the question posed by sociologist Linsey McGoey, whose new book The Unknowers – how strategic ignorance rules the world highlights numerous examples of politicians and company bosses who have been let off the hook by claiming ignorance. 

Professor McGoey believes their use of strategic ignorance, which she defines as ‘the ability to exploit the unknowns in any environment to gain or maintain power’ needs to be challenged.

When the phone hacking scandal broke in 2011, Rupert Murdoch, the Chief Executive of News International claimed he knew nothing about the criminal activities taking place in his media empire.

“While a CEO can’t know everything about what their staff are doing, they do benefit from that ignorance and there is an important legal principle which says that deliberate avoidance of knowledge about one’s own illegal actions should not be a valid defence in law. But in practice, this principle doesn’t always hold. I argue that for many powerful and wealthy people, ignorance really is legal bliss at times.”

Professor McGoey, from the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex, says some intentionally use ignorance to their advantage by either preventing inconvenient or uncomfortable truths from coming to light, or by refusing to ask the right questions.

“When Tony Blair was Prime Minister he put huge pressure on the former attorney general to halt an investigation into bribery at the defence company BAE Systems. He didn’t want the embarrassment of having corruption at a major British firm exposed. I argue that the ability to halt a corruption inquiry is a type of institutional strategic ignorance.

“A major concern of mine, and one I share with colleagues in our Human Rights Centre, is that parent companies are not held responsible for human rights abuses in their subsidiary companies, so it is all too easy for them to turn a blind eye and actively shield themselves from the knowledge they need to put things right.

“Similarly, in Qatar where they are building lots of stadiums for the 2020 World Cup there have been a lot of migrant deaths on the building sites. Officials there are refusing to carry out a proper investigation and instead find it easier to record the deaths as accidents.”

Professor McGoey believes strategic ignorance is effective because it is hard to detect and hard to prosecute, but hopes her book will prompt more scrutiny into the actions of those who use it to their advantage, at the expense of others.

“Power lies not in knowledge, but in the ability to convince others where the boundary between ignorance and knowledge lies,” she said.

The Unknowers – how strategic ignorance rules the world is published by Zed.