“People believe lies,” Malcolm Muggeridge once wrote, “not because they are plausibly presented but because they want to believe them.”
I remember very well how keenly I wanted in 2003 to believe the story of how an unknown army major had managed to win the £1 million prize on the ITV programme, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Chosen volunteers are given a choice of four possible answers to a series of increasingly difficult questions, leading to a possible prize of a million.
It is a hazardous, often nail-biting challenge and very few contestants have succeeded. Major Charles Ingram, ever afterwards confusingly dubbed “the coughing major” was accused and later convicted of winning the prize with the help of an associate in the studio audience who signalled the correct answers to him with the help of coughs – one for answer a, two for b, etc.
Despite his later downfall – a tale told in a recent ITV drama, Quiz – the major remained in my eyes at least a bit of a folk hero. The story recalled The Great Train Robbery of 1963 when a gang of crooks had stolen a million pounds off the mail train which they stopped by tampering with the signals. Crooks they were, but you couldn’t help admiring their derring-do.
So, now an apparently nice-but-dim army major had managed to steal a million pounds from the prosperous TV company, even deceiving the canny and cocksure compere, Chris Tarrant. What a feat!
It should have been obvious that the story was nonsense. As the late Bob Woffinden was to point out in his book, Bad Show (2015), how would it have been possible for the cougher, one Tecwen Whittock – a man whom the major had never even met and who subsequently turned out to be a very poor contestant himself – to know all the answers? Bob Woffinden posed that question and others. If the major was guilty how was it that Chris Tarrant himself had been completely unaware of any coughing?
Wasn’t it obvious that the “nice but dim” major had cultivated a false impression of dimness in order to get on to the show in the first place? He had realised you stood a better chance of being selected if you could be seen to be, in PG Wodehouse’s phrase, “one of England’s less bright minds”.
The fact remained that some of us had ignored such points because we simply wanted to believe the story of the cunning coughing conspiracy.
I had never heard of Cardinal George Pell, former Archbishop of Melbourne, until last year when the BBC started reporting on how he had been arrested for abusing two choirboys in the sacristy of his cathedral after Sunday Mass, and was later convicted and given a prison sentence.
Why did the BBC give such prominence to the downfall of a little-known – in Britain at least – cardinal on the other side of the world? It is hard to resist the conclusion, once again, that this was a story a great many people, including some journalists of the BBC, wanted to believe. Why?
We should never underestimate the amount of hatred that exists of religion in general and Catholicism in particular. The Cardinal Pell story fitted in with the widely cherished conception of the Church as a superstitious, reactionary, male-dominated, homophobic institution presided over by corrupt child-abusers.
Yet as with the major, when carefully considered, the Pell story didn’t add up. One of the Cardinal’s two accusers, now dead, had since withdrawn the charge and cathedral staff had testified that the alleged offence could never have taken place, as was plain when the cardinal was dressed in heavy ecclesiastical vestments.
Last month seven judges of the Australian High Court acquitted the cardinal, though this was not made headline news by the BBC to the same extent as the original charge. Major Ingram, meanwhile, has been campaigning for 17 years to establish his innocence. But that is not a long time in the annals of miscarriages of justice.
Bob Woffinden died before he could witness the revival of interest in the coughing major, which he had done so much to inspire. He had devoted most of his life to the exposure of miscarriages of justice, or what he called, in the title of another book, “The Nicholas cases”, after St Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus.
Himself the victim of wrongful imprisonment in the 4th century, Nicholas was later the bishop of Myra, and later still became the patron saint of children, sailors, travellers and pawnbrokers, as well as performers and those wrongly accused. “As the 21st century unfolds in the UK,” Woffinden wrote in his introduction, “St Nicholas’s workload gets heavier and heavier.”