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.


Anonymous said…
Chairman of the Police Federation should not get a grip on the organisation. Local Police should be free to express their opinions. We do not live in a dictatorship.

We do not know what was said at the time. We have the words of two police officers v an arrogant Tory.

No one has claimed an offence was committed therefore calling for a change of the law is a red herring.

What we do know is when he went, Tory MPs were glad to see the back of him. They also said he was arrogant, and this was typical behaviour. In other words, what was claimed, was not out of character.

There are though unanswered questions:

Why did a third police office who allegedly was not on the scene (we cannot be sure) feel the need to lie?

Why did the police officers not let him through the gate? He was after all trying to get out, not in. Was it so much trouble to let a man wheeling a cycle out the gate? Would they have told Cameron to go out the back?

Chris Whiteside said…
I am glad that we don't live in a dictatorship, but I can understand why the inoming natinal leader of an organisation which he wants to act in a professional manner should not want it undermined by the sort of actions which featured in the Despatches programme on Channel 4.

We are in agreement, as I said in my post and you in your comment, that we do not know, at least not for certain, what was said in the original "plebgate" exchange.

We do know that Andrew Mitchell's account of the incident is fully compatible with the CCTV footage, while the alleged log as reported in the media is at variance with the facts in at least one material respect.

With all due respect, you are not quite correct when you say that nobody is claiming that no offence was committed. I have not seen anyone claiming that Andrew Mitchell should have been arrested since the Channel 4 programme, but there were certainly a few people saying that before.

And the Met must by definition by suggesting that an offence may possibly have been committed by the police officer and the second individual they arrested, or they would hardly have arrested them.

It is the law under which the police officer was arrested which I think should be scrapped.

I bet everyone concerned now wishes they had let him out through the gate.

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