An email arrives. Even after her death, it seems the Iron Lady still has an acute political aim:
APPG MEETING 17 APRIL CANCELLED
Rebalancing: A discussion with Michael Heseltine
THE DISCUSSION WITH MICHAEL HESELTINE ON WEDNESDAY 17 APRIL HAS UNFORTUNATELY BEEN POSTPONED DUE TO BARONESS THATCHER’S FUNERAL. PORTCULLIS HOUSE WILL BE DIFFICULT TO ACCESS ON THE DAY BECAUSE THE FUNERAL PROCESSION IS SET TO START FROM WESTMINSTER AND THERE WILL BE SUBSTANTIAL SECURITY ARRANGEMENTS. WE WILL ANNOUNCE THE RESCHEDULED DATE IN DUE COURSE.
All Party Parliamentary Group on Rebalancing the British Economy
The story of the Philpott children, killed by their parents in a deliberate house fire, is appalling. Kids who were born to a chaotic household, whose father and mother reportedly showed no remorse after burning them to death.
It’s right, therefore, that we should look for ways in which this might have been prevented. While the Mail’s assertion that Mick Philpott was made into the monster he is by the welfare state goes too far, Guido is right to point out the uncomfortable truth that the benefits system coddled him, funded his abusive lifestyle and ultimately played a motivating part in his sickening decision to start the fire.
But to focus on the distortions and failings of the welfare system is to miss other, crucial points. How does this case reflect on our social care and criminal justice systems?
By all accounts, Mick Philpott had a decades-long history of predating upon, taking advantage of and violently abusing vulnerable young women. It is hard to imagine his repeated abusive relationships with teenage girls over the course of the last 30 years had gone unnoticed – and impossible to believe the relevant authorities still didn’t pick it up when he became a minor celebrity in the papers and on the Jeremy Kyle Show. With catastrophic results, they were aware and they decided it was not important enough to address.
Even worse, this case reveals an obvious and disastrous failure in our criminal justice system. In 1978, Philpott’s fiancée dumped him. In response, he broke into her house at night and stabbed her 27 times, slitting open her stomach and telling her: “If I can’t have you, no one will”. He then turned the knife on her mother and left the two of them for dead.
He was caught and convicted – and sentenced to seven years in jail. It is hard to think of a more comprehensive demonstration of wickedness and willingness to act upon it than what he did in 1978, and yet he was released a few years later, giving him decades to build up to the atrocity daubed over today’s newspapers.
This is a simple fact in a complex mess: if Mick Philpott had been sentenced to life (real life) in prison, he would not have committed his later crimes. Our criminal justice system could and should have stopped him – it did not.
Shami Chakrabarti has never been loathe to appear in the media. At every conceivable opportunity, up she pops to the extent people joke about her omnipresence.
That’s fair enough – after all, it is her job. But such constant coverage on so many topics also makes it easier to spot issues on which she and Liberty have maintained a peculiar silence.
Last year, it was striking that despite the range of threats to freedom and civil liberties that arose in the hosting of the London Olympics, Liberty had almost nothing to say on the subject. At the same time, Big Brother Watch dealt with a large number of different freedom issues directly related to the Games . There was no shortage of things to be concerned about.
Then, during Danny Boyle’s brilliant Opening Ceremony, Shami appeared – not to protest against the DNA database or the proliferation of CCTV, but to carry the Olympic flag as a “champion” of the Olympic movement. Suddenly the uncharacteristic quiet of the previous months made sense.
Now it’s happening again.
With Leveson’s proposals being mashed into law in a late night stitch-up, 318 years of British press freedom is coming to an end. Exemplary damages are hanging over the heads of bloggers and journalists alike, as a punitive means of forcing people into a supposedly voluntary system. Pens are being blunted for fear of state-backed punishments. And where are Liberty?
Well, they were in the media back in November – welcoming the Leveson plan, including the oppressive exemplary damages and explicitly supporting the idea of regulating the blogosphere.
Then Shami released a statement in December clarifying that, despite speculation, she was still supporting Leveson’s proposal for state-backed regulation of the media. While she opposed compulsory membership of a regulator, she restated her enthusiastic backing for exemplary damages to ensure anyone who did not voluntarily join would be at risk of ruin.
Since then, nothing. Literal silence from the group whose website claims they believe that:
Human rights are indivisible. You cannot pick and choose which rights you want to honour. Many rights depend on each other to be meaningful – so, for example, the right to fair trial would be meaningless without the prohibition on discrimination, and the right to free speech must go hand in hand with the right to assemble peacefully.
They’ve talked about secret courts. They’ve tweeted to raise funds. But they don’t appear to have given a damn about the prospect of three centuries of a free press going down the drain.
Why could that be?
To find an answer, we need to look back to 20th July 2011, when Liberty reported that:
Today it was announced that the director of human rights group Liberty will be one of the panel members of the judicial inquiry into phone hacking.
What happened to human rights being sacred and indivisible? What happened to Liberty’s self-declared status as a fearless group speaking out against any attack on freedom? For that matter, what happened to the meaning of the word Liberty?
It seems Liberty has become a brand, not a concept to fight for. The indivisible has become the malleable – and all those principles have been sold for a scrap of establishment prestige.
If you’re interested in real civil liberties and real freedom, I’d suggest you lend your support to Big Brother Watch and The Freedom Association (on whose Council I am proud to sit). They, at least, won’t sell their souls – or our freedoms – for a moment in the spotlight, or a seat on a prestigious panel.
As the self-appointed arbiter of media standards in the UK, Hugh Grant has a lot of opinions about what is and isn’t ethical journalism. Apparently the Guardian is perfectly ethical, while papers which report on, I don’t know, sex scandals involving English celebrity romcom actors are beyond the pale. Who knows how he settled on that view?
However he came by his moral code carved in stone doesn’t matter, he’s marched down the mountain and has spent several months using the tablets to lay about any who stand in his way.
Except perhaps he should read what they say before using them to clobber others. Take today’s tweet from the Media Moses:
Rumour in Westminster that editor of Times instructedCameron to call off talks. And our PM did as he was told.Murdoch rules.Still.
— Hugh Grant (@HackedOffHugh) March 14, 2013
That’s quite a big claim – that Rupert Murdoch personally ordered the Times Editor to order the Prime Minister to follow a specific policy and set of actions, which the PM immediately obeyed. What starts as a “rumour” has become, by the end of the tweet, supposedly solid fact that “Murdoch rules.”
Surely an ethical reporter would have given some evidence, quoted a source or even given any reason at all to believe it?
In fact, I seem to recall that the Leveson report had something to say about exactly that:
“45. A new regulatory body should consider encouraging the press to be as transparent as possible in relation to the sources used for stories, including providing any information that would help readers to assess the reliability of information from a source”
In short, Hugh Grant is promoting adopting the Leveson proposals by, err, going dead against Leveson’s proposals on evidence and sourcing. His “rumour” could have come from Tom Watson. It could have come from one of Murdoch’s own competitors. For that matter, Hugh Grant could just have made it up – but he has merrily injected it into the public debate, with no evidence or source in sight.
It’s hardly “ethical reporting”, is it, Hugh?
Lib Dem MP Sir Bob Russell caused a stir – and a surge in Westminster sunglasses sales – at PMQs today by wearing a blindingly bright yellow waistcoat.
On closer inspection it seems Sir Bob was out to prove his loyalty, as the garment in question featured an embroidered Liberal Democrat logo peeking out from behind his lapel:
Those who were in the Chamber at the time reliably assure me he was wearing socks to match – leading more than one to wonder whether he went the whole hog and wore Lib Dem pants, too.
We must be told, though I’m not sure I want to know…
Tomorrow, Sir Gus O’Donnell, the former head of the civil service known in Whitehall as GOD, starts a new BBC series titled “In Defence of Bureaucracy“. The adverts trailing on Radio 4 rather smugly quote people saying bureaucracy makes them think of “Stalinist Russia” before presenting Tony Blair and the voice of GOD himself to reassure us that in fact bureaucracy holds us in its warm embrace from cradle to grave.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Sir Gus has recently set out to make himself the UK’s Mario Monti – a top-down technocrat who thinks that if only the grubby masses would stop poking their noses into how things should be run, then the clever suits in Whitehall could get on with making this country into a statist pleasure-dome.
In 2012, he essentially put up his own civil service candidate to be Mayor of London – happily, Siobhan Benita got a worse drubbing than the Italians dished out to Monti, coming fifth with 3.8% of the vote.
It is true to say that the British Civil Service was once a fantastic institution – but that is not the same as thinking they should ever hold political power. In fact, not wanting to force their own views on our democratic institutions was essential to their success and standing. The GOD delusion that civil servants should now run the show is both a symptom and a cause of Whitehall’s downfall.
To see how times have changed, just look at today’s news. Yet again, Ministers who went into government opposing ID cards are having the wasteful, illiberal policy foisted upon them by officials.
Somewhere in Whitehall it seems there is a civil servant whose only job is to review new government policies in the hope of finding an excuse to use them as a vehicle for re-introducing ID cards. Who cares that the electoracte, and their representatives in Parliament, oppose the scheme? Why should righteous civil servants sit back and accept such opinions when they know themselves to be wiser than the people?
Politics was traditionally about the interaction of voters and politicians. That perspective worked well when the civil service appreciated the essential limits on their role. As soon as some in Whitehall decided they should give the orders, rather than take them, our democracy proved startlingly vulnerable to civil service activism. Through every window of opportunity, a pinstriped arm reached to grab another bit of power from the people.
This trend has flourished in the last fifiteen years, and it is going on right now, as you read this. The cost to our pockets, our freedom and our democracy has been vast. Sir Gus O’Donnell will take to the airwaves tomorrow morning to spin in its defence, paid for by you and me.
I’m pleased to report that this evening I will be joining the panel of the BBC’s Question Time as their @BBCExtraGuest. This means I’ll be responding to the questions, commenting on the show and debating/arguing/falling out with the Question Time audience on Twitter.
The show is being broadcast from Eastleigh, for obvious reasons, and the panel includes Jeremy Browne MP, Angela Eagle MP, Claire Perry MP, Neil Hamilton and Ken Loach so it should be a fairly provocative discussion.
If you’d like to follow my tweets and join in live, I’ll be tweeting from @BBCExtraGuest from about 10 minutes before the show starts. I hope you’ll join me there!