I have to begin this with a confession. I like many a journalist held a type of morbid fascination with the Andrew Mitchell story that aired on Channel 4 News last night.
In fact, it was only later in the evening during a Twitter conversation with a friend that I was awoken from a strange slumber and made to realise that Mitchell's calls for a full public inquiry into the circumstances that led to his resignation were both fatuous and driven by the kind of ego only a politician like Mitchell can inhabit.
I will blame the arrival of my newborn son for the oversight but am grateful to my friend for waking me up.
And then this morning I read Nick Robinson's BBC blog explaining why the Mitchell story matters. According to Robinson it matters because three crucial questions need to be answered:
- Why was the email accusing Mitchell of calling two police officers f***ing plebs written?
- How did the officer who wrote it know what was in the police log?
- Did he talk to the officers involved, to their superiors or to the Police Federation?
He is right, of course, to suggest that any hint of police corruption or collusion - with the press, colleagues and/or other politicians - to conspire against a serving member of the government needs to be examined. But where he, Mitchell and the government are wrong is to overplay the significance of this incident compared to several much larger miscarriages of justice.
Where is the public inquiry for the victims of corruption that followed the Hillsborough disaster? Yes the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Director of Public Prosecutions have both launched inquiries but why nothing from the government?
What about the public inquiry called for by the widow of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane last week after a report found his murder in 1989 was carried out with the knowledge and collusion of the security forces?
Why did it take more than three decades of campaigning for a public inquiry to take place into the Bloody Sunday massacre?
Such miscarriages of justice - and these are just a few examples - are far more important than Andrew Mitchell losing his job in the cabinet surely? And the mere fact that he can call for a public inquiry into whether he was the subject of a good old fashioned 'fit up' by the police, a week after David Cameron ignored calls for a full public inquiry into the murder of Finucane speaks volumes about this government, Mitchell and their priorities.
Mitchell lost his job. Finucane lost his life.
It also says as much about the attitude of the press that the Mitchell affair dominates the front pages today and will continue to do so for several days, maybe even weeks to come, while the Finucane affair has largely already been forgotten. What makes Mitchell more important than the Finucane family? Or for that matter the families of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster?
The naval gazing Westminster bubble has once again struck and we are left with the impression that an MP suffering an injustice at the hands of the police somehow is more important than the police being implicated in the murder of a solicitor. To call that outrageous doesn't begin to do justice to the rage the victims of far worse miscarriages of justice ought to and undoubtedly will feel!!
Mitchell may have been the subject of a visceral attack from the press and no-one should have to undergo the sustained attack he was subjected to. But not only is that part and parcel of being in front line politics it would not have happened had his own colleagues believed him capable of calling two police officers a couple of 'f***ing plebs'.
Moreover, MPs and their staff can be quite abrasive in their dealings with journalists and others. I myself have experienced such behaviour on more than one occasion as I'm sure have many of my colleagues. The relationship between MPs and those they are meant to serve has always been a tetchy one.
Mitchell lost his job because arguably he wasn't very good at it. Take the fact that he ignored Foreign Office advice not to reinstate £16m worth of UK aid to the Rwandan government's leader Paul Kagame earlier this year. This despite there being an international freeze on aid to the country amid accusations that Kagame suppressed political opposition and gagged the media in the general election earlier this year, which saw him returned to power, and accusations that Rwanda under Kagame was helping to fuel conflict in its war torn neighbour Congo. All this following a lunch with Kagame which presumably convinced Mitchell he was good chap!!
From a professional point of view what is depressing about the whole affair is the lack of journalistic rigour. If the journalists that wrote the original 'plebgate' story had taken a little more time and done their homework a bit better the story would have been a non-starter in the first place. They would have checked if there were CCTV cameras monitoring the front gate to Downing Street. They would have obtained the CCTV footage just as Channel 4 News did.
What is somewhat farcical about these latest revelations is that it took so long for someone to realise that there were bound to be CCTV cameras not only in Downing Street itself but at the entrance to Downing Street! And why? Because a police log of a member of the cabinet swearing at two officers was simply too juicy, too exciting, too salacious to pass up or even bother checking out fully. Any journalist will tell you they know how the conversation would have gone: "We got the police log, what else do we need? Nothing!"
Mitchell has a right to feel aggrieved that he was the subject of a trial by press when only half the evidence was available but once again he is not the only person to have suffered in such a way. Many others can point to their entire lives having been ruined by press intrusion or false accusations.
Whether he realises it or not - and I very much doubt he does - Andrew Mitchell's suffering has been far less than that of many ordinary people.
He may also want to reflect on how he felt when falsely accused of misconduct in his job. There are hundreds of people that are accused of such things everyday and his government has made it far, far easier for company bosses to sack their staff by increasing the length of time an employee has to have worked for a company before they can claim unfair dismissal from one year to two.
The government's current proposals to cut redundancy consultation periods in half may be a place for him to start were he to feel emboldened to represent the interests of the oppressed or put upon.
Unfortunately Mitchell's ego is unlikely to allow him to reflect on anything much at all. That much was clear from his Channel 4 News interview last night.
There are far more important, genuine, problems facing the country, the government, the economy and British society. Why are we talking about whether a Conservative politician swore at two police officers at all?
I, for one, never found it surprising and in the end that is why Mitchell resigned. Neither did anyone else.Suggest a correction