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What Is Harriet Harman Supposed to Apologise For?

To witness, in full swing, the 'politics of apology', with all its childish, faux-outrage, and fuelled by right-wing tabloid hysteria, is pretty dispiriting. Labour's Harriet Harman, I am assured, has no plans to apologise for her role in the National Council for Civil Liberties four decades ago. And, in the absence of a 'smoking gun', nor should she have to.

To witness, in full swing, the 'politics of apology', with all its childish, faux-outrage, and fuelled by right-wing tabloid hysteria, is pretty dispiriting.

"Say sorry!" Huh? "Say sorry NOW!" For what? "Just say it, goddammit!!"

Former Labour health secretary Patricia Hewitt's decision to issue a full and frank apology - "I got it wrong on PIE and I apologise for having done so" - over the well-documented links in the 1970s and 1980s between the National Council of Civil Liberties (NCCL), of which she was general secretary, and its disgusting affiliate, the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), has put pressure on former NCCL staffer Harriet Harman, now Labour's deputy leader, to also say sorry.

On Thursday night's Question Time, on BBC1, panellists on the right piled in. Former Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips described Harman as "evasive", claiming that had she apologised "at the beginning" there would have been "no story".

Tory minister Anna Soubry agreed with Phillips - had the deputy Labour leader said sorry, Soubry argued, the Mail campaign would have "completely disappeared and gone away".

I'm not sure whether the pair were being naive or disingenuous. The Mail thrives on shows of weakness, not strength, on the part of its victims; had Harman offered a self-flagellating apology on Monday night's Newsnight, on BBC2, the paper (and others on the right) would not have taken on a sudden vow of silence - they would have promptly and loudly demanded her head on a stick.

The bigger question, however, is this: what exactly is it that the Mail and its outriders want Harman to apologise for?

For a start, Harman is not Hewitt. It was right and proper for the former health secretary and ex-MP to offer a fulsome apology, given she was general secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties from 1974 to 1983 - the period in which the latter developed links with PIE. It was Hewitt who was in charge of the organisation when PIE's Tom O'Carroll, later convicted of child pornography offences, was allowed to sit on the NCCL's gay rights committee; it was Hewitt who attended a meeting of the NCCL's executive committee in 1976 which agreed to call for the age of consent to be reduced to 10; it was Hewitt who wrote back to PIE chairman Keith Hose in 1975 describing the proposal he had submitted to NCCL on lowering the age of consent as "most helpful.. it has certainly been taken into account by the people preparing our evidence". She has much to apologise for.

Harman, lest we forget, was a high-profile but nonetheless junior member of the organisation, having joined NCCL in 1978 - that is, two years after the 'reducing the age of consent to 10' proposal. She was one of the NCCL's two legal officers and answered directly to Hewitt. Harman had no one working below her, nor did she have any powers to hire or fire or decide on the NCCL's affiliates or members. She didn't attend the gay rights committee on which O'Carroll says he sat; as she said earlier this week: "I never even met Tom O'Carroll. I had never done any work with what was called the gay rights committee at that time, which he sat on. He had no influence over my work at all."

And what was her work? To read the Mail, the Telegraph and the rest of the papers in recent days, you might imagine Harman and her NCCL colleagues spent much of their time in the late 1970s obsessing over the age of sexual consent and lobbying the government to go soft on paedophiles. In fact, Harman campaigned on behalf of battered wives and disabled children, in defence of jury trials, freedom of information and prisoner's rights and in favour of laws to combat racial and sexual discrimination. As the deputy Labour leader's own website reminds us, she "represented Brenda Clarke in a successful landmark Sex Discrimination Act case against her employer, Ely Kinnock, who had discriminated against women part-timers through a redundancy scheme which made part-timers redundant before full-timers".

Harman has every right to be proud of her record at NCCL, while expressing regret, as she has done, that NCCL stupidly and carelessly allowed a vile organisation like PIE not only to become an affiliate but to infiltrate its subcommittees. Despite the Mail's best efforts, no documents or witnesses have emerged (so far) linking her directly to PIE or, crucially, to PIE's revolting propaganda on behalf of paedophilia - even the loathsome O'Carroll has said that Harman's position has not been "fairly represented by the Daily Mail's attack".

Why? Because this is personal. Let's not be under any illusions: the Daily Mail has a long history of mocking, ridiculing and baiting Labour's deputy leader. "Harman and Dromey - high priests of hypocrisy," wrote the Mail's Geoffrey Levy - he of 'Ralph Miliband hates Britain' infamy - back in 2007. "So what if Harriet Harperson was PM?" asked the Mail's Quentin Letts in 2008. "Has there ever been a more preposterous figure than the Equalities Minister Harriet Harman?" asked the Mail's Phillips in 2009. You get the drift..

Thus the deputy leader of Her Majesty's Opposition has no intention of apologising - especially at the Mail's behest. "Why should she apologise to the Mail?" a friend of hers tells me. "They can just fuck off." Harman herself has come out fighting: on Tuesday, she tweeted pictures from the Mail website showing a 12-year-old girl in a bikini alongside the (provocative) question: "When it comes to decency and sexualisation of children, would you take lessons from the Daily Mail?"

Remember: the Mail didn't merely 'ask questions' of her, or 'raise issues' from her past. Astonishingly, the paper's editor Paul Dacre decided to accuse Harman, without a shred of evidence, of being an "apologist" for the heinous crime of paedophilia. On its front page, too. A claim, incidentally, which the paper's own consultant editor Andrew Pierce has admitted is unfounded. It was a smear, plain and simple.

Another smear worth challenging is that this is a left-wing or Labour Party scandal. On Question Time, on Thursday night, Phillips declared that "there was [in the 1970s] a climate on the progressive side of politics, on the left, which was obsessed with rights and it didn't draw a distinction between the rights of adults and the rights of children and the whole issue of sex was mixed up with rights.. it was a kind of madness".

To make paedophilia a left-right issue, however, is offensive, not to mention absurd. First, the Guardian reports that Peter Hain was among those who "clashed with PIE in 1975 when he was honorary vice-president of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality".

Second, libertarians on the right, as much as liberals on the left, were in favour of a more permissive, rights-based agenda in the 1970s and 1980s - as they are today, too.

Third, there were Tories who were involved in, or supported, the NCCL. Former Conservative minister and mayoral candidate Steve Norris, for example, was a "long time supporter of the National Council for Civil Liberties". Should he be apologising, too?

To conclude, and for some much-needed sanity and sense on this subject, let us turn not to Melanie Phillips, but to a much more rational and sharper member of the right-wing commentariat: Matthew Parris, the former Conservative MP. Writing in the Times on Wednesday, Parris asked:

"Does anyone honestly think that Ms Harman could ever have been some kind of a cheerleader for child-abuse? Of course not. And if we don't think that, and if we do think that it was through inattention that, as an officer of the National Council for Civil Liberties, she didn't spot the unwisdom of a dodgy lobbying outfit's association with the council, then for pity's sake what's all the ruckus about? But lacking further evidence against her, we rant at her 'refusal to apologise'."

Let the ranting continue. Harman, I am assured, has no plans to apologise. And, in the absence of a 'smoking gun', nor should she have to.

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