Thoughts on "Plebgate" during the season of goodwill
Mr first reflection on "Plebgate" is that the government and the Police Federation urgently need to repair the damage that has been done to the relationship between them and rebuild some goodwill and trust. It is not in the interests of the government, the police, or the country for them to be at loggerheads.
The police have had a truly dreadful year, and the behaviour of a few officers, some of them very senior, has contributed to this, but the vast majority of ordinary coppers have not done anything to merit criticism. The police do an important, difficult and sometimes dangerous job on our behalf for which they need, and the vast majority deserve, our respect.
Equally it is just as well that the incoming national chairman of the police federation wants to get a grip on his organisation. It was not the police's finest hour when Channel 4 viewers heard a recording of a meeting in which representatives of the West Midlands Police Federarion were given an account from a cabinet minister of his version of events and thanked him for his candour, and then saw a replay of the TV footage which had been broadcast a few seconds after the meeting, on which one of those same representatives came out of the meeting and immediately demand the minister's resignation on the grounds that he had supposedly refused to give that account.
What will the impact on their confidence in the value of police testimony be next time those viewers find themselves on a jury?
My second thought is we all ought to learn a few lessons from what has come out this year, not just over "Plebgate" but over some of the issues where complaints which sounded at first like the rantings of paranoid fantasists turned out to be the truth, such as Hillsborough and the Finucane murder.
The first of those lessons is not to be too quick to believe the first accounts we hear: and on that point both the two people who have been arrested over "plebgate" deserve to be regarded as "innocent until proven guilty" just as Andrew Mitchell did, at least inso far as the toxic phrases he has always denied using are concerned.
It is important to qualify that by remembering that what Andrew Mitchell has admitted he did say, and for which he has rightly apologised, is not how a politician, or anyone else for that matter, ought to speak to a public servant. To be fair to Mitchell he has always admitted this.
We may never know for certain whether Mitchell really did use the words attributed to him because there was no sound on the CCTV. But Michael Crick's excellent documentary - not a set of four words you will often get from a tory, but certainly merited in this case - established pretty much beyond doubt that the alleged "police log" which was quoted in the Sun and Telegraph was seriously at variance with the facts in at least one respect, the allegation that members of the public heard and were shocked by what was said.
My third reflection is that the offence of "misconduct in a public office" should be scrapped.
How many people have noticed that this bizarre offence, which was the charge brought against the the officer who was arrested over "plebgate," was also the same charge brought in what I consider one of the most disgraceful wrongful arrests of modern times? I can guarantee that the minister for Police Reform won't have missed it.
That's because it's the charge on which Damian Green MP, now the minister for Police Reform, was arrested while he was a shadow minister, and when his real "offence" was being too effective in embarrassing the egregious Labour government which was in office at the time and a particularly egregious Home secretary.
Any law which can be used to arrest opposition politicians on grounds as flimsy as were brought against Damian Green does not belong on the statue book of a modern democracy, and "plebgate" has reinforced rather than changed my mind about this. It's a law which only ever seems to be used against whistleblowers.
If, and I repeat, if, (innocent until proven guilty, remember) the officer arrested in the "plebgate" case could be proved to have done anything for which the majority of people in this country would be likely to consider that he deserved punshment - passing on a pack of lies in an attempt to wreck someone's career for something they had not done, for example - then it should not be that difficult to find a charge which would stand up without using "misconduct in a public office." Criminal libel would be the most obvious, conspiracy might well apply if two or more people were acting together.
I hope that before too long this law will be repealed.