Tim Lott: Looking back, I'd have avoided hindsight

Politicians confronting the phone-hacking scandal have a new euphemism for 'I thought I'd get away with it'

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With hindsight, I wish I hadn't written this column, since, as we know now, Rupert and James Murdoch threw themselves off Sydney Harbour Bridge this morning, upset by the harsh tone of my words.

I would like to declare here and now that I genuinely have no wish to be even partially responsible for the demise of anyone, however venal, Australian or unscrupulous, and I regret the unforeseen consequences deeply.

Does that argument wash with you? It should. I had no idea when I wrote this column on Thursday that there was a danger of its resulting in the watery death of the Murdochs and any reasonable person could not have anticipated it. Although I feel irrationally guilty about it, no one could rationally hold me culpable. This is the meaning of hindsight – the playing out of consequences that could not have been predicted by a given individual and, therefore, could not have been taken into account by that person.

The Murdochs, Rebekah Brooks, David Cameron and the police last week have all desperately deployed hindsight arguments in order to protect their positions. But, in reality, these defences, although they genuinely do involve hindsight, are not the kind of hindsight that would generally produce public sympathy. For what the individuals in question are saying is simply: "If I'd known at the time that this whole business was going blow up in my face, I wouldn't have been so dodgy and feckless."

It doesn't take very long to demolish the various hindsight defences for all parties involved. James Murdoch, with hindsight, would have "taken more action and moved faster to get to he bottom of these allegations". But with such an urgent issue stretching back at least to The Guardian's revelations of July 2009, he could, clearly, have been more proactive. After all, six years previously, Brooks had stated in front of a parliamentary committee that her reporters were paying police for information – a very clear admission of corruption. But, extraordinarily, no one did anything about it then, just as James Murdoch did nothing about Nick Davies's dramatic story that News Group Newspapers had paid £1m to settle legal cases that would have named other phone-hacking journalists.

Cameron's shield of hindsight is even easier to demolish. The Prime Minister said that, with hindsight, he "would not have offered him [Coulson] the job. But you don't take decisions in hindsight; you take them in the present." This defence barely stands a moment's inspection. No proper security clearance was in place at the time of Coulson's appointment – you didn't have to have hindsight to see that was a potential problem, or that it might conceal potential problems. And, as everyone knows now, Cameron was repeatedly given information about Coulson that he ignored. This information was available "in the present" and at the time.

As for Sir Paul Stephenson and John Yates, the first said that, with hindsight, he wished he "had judged some matters involved in this affair differently"; and the latter that, in hindsight, "there is a shed load of stuff that I wish I'd known". This is the same unconvincing defence – because one senses that if both parties had really wished to know about this "shed load of stuff" they might have taken the trouble to look inside Glenn Mulcaire's shed more scrupulously (Yates spent only eight hours reviewing the evidence when he was asked to consider reopening the original investigation).

On the whole, digging into the affair more assiduously was an action that might have rationally and sensibly taken place in the present and at the time, with the information that was clearly available to these individuals then. Once again, their defence seems to amount to: "If I'd known all of this was going to blow up in my face, I would have acted professionally and competently and scrupulously. But I didn't. I thought I'd get away with it. I always have done in the past."

Hindsight defences are particularly popular among politicians. Tony Blair argued in his memoir that, in respect of Iraq, "with hindsight, both the de-Ba'athification and the disbanding of the army could and should have been done differently". But that's his only recourse to the hindsight defence – he makes no such justification for his judgement on WMDs and the decision to go to war.

This strikes me as a defence that may even be valid – after all, the whole world did believe Saddam had WMDs, and no one quite believed that the Yanks would be that incompetent and poorly prepared. But Blair, even when citing the partial mitigation of hindsight, has never shirked from taking full responsibility for his decision. Thus, I suspect he is a superior politician to Cameron, because Cameron says only that he takes full responsibility while using weasel words to simultaneously deny it.

Hindsight has a distorting effect on all sorts of historical, as well as political, analysis. I have lost count of the times I have heard respectable intellectuals talk about how this or that historical development was "inevitable". The First World War was "inevitable"after the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The rise of Hitler was "inevitable" after the Versailles treaty, or the collapse of the German economy. Take your pick. But the fact is, nothing is inevitable until it happens. Hindsight, as much as it is used as a political excuse, is also a way of fixing the world into place – to make us believe things are more predictable than they are. And perhaps that is why some people are inclined to be unduly sympathetic when they hear the hindsight defence – because it chimes with what they find psychologically comfortable.

The hindsight defence also appears frequently on The Apprentice, as in: "With hindsight, I can see marmite-flavoured ice cream was probably not my best wheeze." Lord Sugar usually gives such submissions short shrift – as I'm sure James and Rupert would do if one of their subordinates tried to pass off a bad decision as stemming from a "lack of hindsight".

I use the hindsight defence myself, but usually in the domestic realm, when I tell my wife that, in hindsight, I wish I had hung the washing up but at the time I hadn't realised the spin cycle had finished (what I'm actually saying is, in hindsight, if I'd known it was going to result in being given the cold shoulder for 24 hours, I would have damned well made it my business to check the spin cycle).

Hindsight is thus, separately, a useful excuse, a psychological comfort blanket and a misunderstanding, sometimes wilful, of the way the world works. An intermingling of these factors makes it a powerfully tempting shield for those who seek to protect themselves from criticism.

But over the past few weeks, I haven't needed hindsight to tell me that I'm being taken for a mug by the powerful and the slippery. That much is clear and will stay so, however much time passes before I look back on it, doubtless with as much anger as I feel today.

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