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Power and responsibility - John C. Kirk

Jan. 13th, 2014

12:40 am - Power and responsibility

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I recently heard my local MP on the radio, talking about the "Plebgate" controversy. (As a side note, I'm not really keen on the trend where "-gate" means "scandal". At this point, I don't think it's even a direct reference to Watergate, it's just become a synonym. However, in this case the people concerned were at least standing next to a gate when the conversation took place.)

Just to recap, the original incident happened in September 2012. Andrew Mitchell (a Cabinet minister) was leaving Downing Street with his bike, and the police officer on gate duty told him that he'd have to use the pedestrian gate rather than the vehicle gate. According to Toby Rowland (the police officer at the gate), Mitchell then swore at him and called him a pleb. According to Ben Mills (his senior officer on the night), Rowland phoned up 2 minutes later to report that he'd issued Mitchell with a section 5 public order warning. (I got that info from an interview on One News Page; I think it originally came from Sky, but I don't have a direct link.) Later on, Keith Wallis emailed his local MP, saying that he'd witnessed the conversation. However, it turns out that Wallis is a policeman, and he wasn't actually there, so he'd lied about the whole thing. There's a report about that at Sky News (Plebgate Police Officer Admits Misconduct), although I think the headline is a bit misleading: as far as I know, Rowland still maintains that he's telling the truth. Meanwhile, this got a lot of media attention, and Mitchell wound up resigning from the Cabinet, although he's remained as an MP.

Anyway, that Sky report includes an interview with Richard Ottaway (MP for South Croydon) and I heard a quote from that on the radio later: "I think this is a black day for the Metropolitan Police. To discover that a serving police officer has fabricated evidence in an effort to bring down a cabinet minister, in a democracy like Britain's, is frankly as serious as it could possibly get. And if it could happen to a cabinet minister then it could happen to you and me, and that's the biggest concern of all."

When I heard that, it sounded reasonable. However, I've been thinking about it a bit more since then, and I'm not sure that the police deserve all the blame here. Suppose that the police had just reported this incident to Mitchell's boss. (I'm not quite sure how the chain of command works, but the Prime Minister would certainly be higher up.) Would that have led to Mitchell's resignation? I suspect that this is more a case of "trial by media", i.e. the situation became embarrassing for the government after it attracted so much attention. So, the media brought this story to the public's attention, then they reported on people's outrage in reaction to that story. This seems as if they're creating the news rather than just reporting it. So, I think that Ottaway's concerns about the police apply equally to news organisations: should they have the power to take away someone's job? And if they do have that level of influence, should they be more diligent about researching stories before they publish them?

Yesterday, the Telegraph reported on 'forkgate'. Apparently people in New York are upset because the mayor used a (knife and) fork to eat pizza rather than his bare hands. So, the pattern continues. It's not quite the same thing, because that was a publicity event that the mayor arranged himself, but I still think that the media are stirring up trouble under a catchy name.

Personally, I've always maintained that it would be quite difficult for anyone to blackmail me, because I'm quite upfront about the weird stuff I get up to. However, I'm sure that the tabloids could make me look bad if they decided to target me, just by selective reporting. I'm not particularly worried about that, because I'm not prominent enough to attract their attention, but I still have concerns about the balance of power. So, I think it's prudent to be sceptical about news reports, even from the more reputable organisations.