She has stated that she does not wish to be contacted or written about by Mr Davies as she feels harassed by these actions. Mr Davies has failed to accept this, but continued to write and make unsolicited contacts which result in Ms Desai feeling intimidated and persecuted.
The above paragraph may be one of the most chilling ever made by a public official in Britain in living memory. Note, that it does not just warn the journalist – who’d been investigating an alleged fraudster, something you might think the police would applaud and cooperate with–against harassment and so on. It actually points out, that despite this alleged con artist complaining about previous reports, the journalist continued to write about them. And this, don’t forget is the criminal law. We’re not talking about Defamation, which is a civil matter, and there’s no suggestion that the journalist might be breaching some properly made legal ruling in court, or being in Contempt because the case was active (if only!). The senior police officer has on the charge-sheet that the journalist is writing stuff that somebody else doesn’t like. This, apparently, in 2014 Britain, is enough to make yourself subject to the laws of harassment.
To understand how far we have travelled down the road of press-muzzling, just imagine this happening in the USA.
When the journalist had complained that he was only pursuing a legitimate biscuit it matter, he was met by the sneering response that News of the World journalists had said that when they were allegedly found to have ‘hacked’ voice mails. Leveson, was, of course mentioned. Anyone who thinks – are you taking note, Hackwatch? – that 'Leveson’ would not result in a further ‘chilling’ of legitimate journalism in this country should hang their heads in shame for their complete lack of judgement and common sense.
It is now abundantly evident that this inquiry and the subsequent report was the worst thing to have happened in British journalism since the least World War II. Of course, the people involved intended this to happen– I accept that. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. As we can clearly see that they can be shown to have been so demonstrably wrong in stating that some sort of regulation of the press was not intended to - and would not lead to - the muzzling of legitimate journalism, I think we can dismiss their evidence and their schemes and plans.
People sometimes asked me– usually in a rather oblique way– why I am so suspicious of authority, be it secular or religious. Some might say I should have grown out of it – that a sceptical if not cynical approach to those who hold power and the reasons why they strive to hold power, is okay for an adolescent but something I should have grown out of. That I am – as Harold Wilson accused Tony Benn – immaturing with age.
In fact, I’m rather ashamed to say now, that as an adolescent and young adult I was not anywhere suspiciously enough. I tended to take most of those in authority at their word although it’s only happy to investigate when there was circumstantial evidence to the contrary. And of course, as I previously Blogged, like most of us I’ve seen power abused at school, particularly primary school, where certain teachers would pick on inarticulate kids from working-class backgrounds and abuse them mentally and physically.
I’ve seen power abused in the workplace as well. But I’ve interviewed and observed public officials of various kinds of work, from police officers, to local council officials to Cabinet ministers, and I thought they were mostly decent individuals, often trying to do a very difficult job in difficult circumstances, and so on.
That view, although it still holds some traction, has been undermined in recent years, with everything from the regulation of and response to the banking crisis and the financial collapse of 2008 onwards, to the various horrendous NHS scandals, to the BBC payoffs and, by no means least, the clear evidence that authorities at various levels had not only just turned a blind eye to Jimmy Savile’s paedophilia, but contrived to protect him, and – at best - to ignore the complaints of his victims.
We now have overwhelming evidence that the former Liberal/Liberal Democrat MP for Rochdale, Cyril Smith, had also abused children over decades and that not only was this covered up, but the authorities actively sought to repress various enquiries into his conduct and to intimidate those were minded to pursue them. This is a scandal of a truly epic scale. And it was largely left to what I think is the most important publication in English today, Private Eye, to release some of the abuse carried out by Smith, and other politicians in Rochdale and beyond (yes, you might to be thinking: "what, Rochdale again?” Is there something in the water there?”) as far back as 1979.
You would think it would be obvious now – even to the wretched Nick Clegg and his predecessors in the Liberal/Liberal Democratic party, who paid such fulsome tribute to Smith on his 80th birthday, despite several of them admitting that they had heard the ’rumours’ about him (do you think we should club together and buy a sub’ to Private Eye for the Liberal Democrat HQ?) - that you don’t need regulations and ‘oversight’ to muzzle our press even more. Rather, we need laws to liberate it; to enable it to pursue leads and investigations of all sorts, without fear of being criminalized through supposed harassment.
But, of course, this is a minority position– in fact almost certainly a very small minority position. The public has been understandably outraged by various alleged and some proven excesses by the press (almost all of which were illegal tjrough existing laws anyway) and, whilst happily lapping up scandals involving “Love Cheat” footballers and the like, is spookily unconcerned about the ratcheting up of attacks on our freedom of expression.
This sinister erosion of our liberties is true also of what is deemed to be acceptable and unacceptable comment: a point that is made with customary rigour and eloquence by Mark Steyn in the current edition of the The Spectator. I knew Mark when he was still in his school’s sixth form and I was also still in my teens, and he’s always had a certain passion, shall we say, for stirring things up. You don’t have to agree with all his polemic to accept his broad premise. For the record, I think he’s wrong about the extent and threat of extreme Islam; in one of his books he appears to think that there’s a Mosque on almost every street corner in Britain and Sharia Law imposed by the ‘beak’ in the local magistrates’ courts. I have to tell him that, where I live, in West Lancashire, there is no evidence of this whatsoever and indeed it is boringly, ‘traditional’ white, mostly working-class, and overwhelmingly secular. I would also say that the Moslems I have come to know are amongst the kindest, most decent people you could ever wish to meet. That is not to say that there are not elements who seek to undermine what, for shorthand, we can call ‘western liberal values’, but a sense of proportion is needed here, just as much as it is with the pursuit of historic sex allegations against British media types and entertainers.
Because, you see, it’s that lack of proportion that is really at the heart of so much of our troubles. We lurch from one terrible position – not pursuing allegations of wrongdoing by famous/powerful people - to a witch-hunt. Too strong you say? You don’t really believe that the embarrassing and humiliating failure of the authorities to pursue Savile while he was alive has not led to the pursuit of famous people on the flimsiest – indeed, if it were not so serious - laughable evidence?
Okay, well then: show me the office managers, say, who ‘inappropriately touched’ a female – or indeed male - colleague in the 1960s to the ‘80s who has even been questioned. How much police time has been spent trying to find witnesses to alleged ‘gropers’ (and, surely, almost every office and shop-floor had one) in other types of work-places during that period? How many people in ‘ordinary’ jobs were promised promotion, a pay rise, or perhaps not getting the sack, if they ‘slept’ with a superior, or at least performed what is routinely and blandly called 'a sex act’? If you can show me one case where, let’s say, a manager at a car company or a solicitor has been pursued for ‘historic’ alleged offences, then I might believe that this is not, clearly, a witch-hunt.
We are supposed to be equal under the law, but, apparently, when it comes to deciding who should be prosecuted, there is no equality at all. And why is it that all or most recent cases concentrated on complaints against particular politicians and entertainers, and not, say, those managers currently in media companies? You think that sexual wrongdoing ended with Savile? You think that only political interns have been subject to this sort of thing? One newsroom intern recounted recently how a manager was musing on how to decide which of the various female hopefuls he would employ. “It’s blowjob or no job”, was his somewhat inappropriate policy.
So what do I conclude from all this? That far from there being suspicion and hostility to the press, public officials of all sorts should start from the position that journalists have the right to pursue stories that are clearly in the public interest, and should cooperate in every possible way to enable them to do their job. That information should, by default, be deemed to be in the public interest and put in the public domain. This should only be withheld, or subject to particular limitations, where there is a genuine and overwhelming need to protect the identity of those who have unwittingly found themselves caught up in the ‘story’, or where publishing information would cause a significant threat to public safety, either in general or of particular individuals.
The prosecutors need to decide whether it is really in the public interest to seek to criminalise people for their alleged behavior many decades ago, especially at a time when legal aid has been so voraciously cut that even when, as in the case of Bill Roache and Nigel Evans, defendants are cleared of all charges, they face financial ruin to pay their defence team.
A sense of proportion needs to be absolutely at the forefront of decision-making. There is clearly a huge difference between someone, such as Stuart Hall, who ‘groomed’ children over a period of years in a calculated way and then sexually abused them, compared with someone who is alleged to have wandering hands and made some suggestive comments many years ago. Police and prosecutors should also be more sceptical about witnesses who, despite apparently fearing that they might be molested, returned voluntarily several times to the bed/home of the alleged attacker/abuser.
I know that many women and indeed others will say ”ah, it’s alright for you, you don’t understand what it’s like to have a person in a position of power…”, etc. Well, actually I do, a bit: as a teenager I had unwelcome attention from several much older males and at work I was pressured by a senior manager into having sex with her – oh, yes, it is not unknown for women to do this, but I am not intending to go into that now – and I have been (rather sweetly) propositioned by another man at the gym. Well, we were both stark naked in the sauna at the time and if you hang around with other naked, sweating males what do you expect? I also accept that, if you come from a loving family, have a certain amount of confidence, that you can brush off these unwelcome advances, without feeling shame, guilt and embarrassment.
Which is why I feel so strongly about the Cyril Smith and Savile cases (and the tsunami of other ones involving children’s homes, many run by Catholic priests): these are people who have already been rejected by individuals (their biological parents), have a chronic lack of self-esteem, are hugely vulnerable, and yet were left not just unprotected, but were often called liars and fantasist; were beaten, threatened and humiliated still further by so-called ‘responsible adults’.
In the Cyril Smith case, when conscientious police detectives put together a very convincing file they were ‘warned off’ pursuing it, told to ‘bury’ the report, not to contact the witnesses again, and had the investigating team broken up. Journalists risked potentially potentially financially ruinous and career-ending Defamation action if they pursued it.
Bad things happen to people every day; passing a law does not make people good. Where someone is though clearly a menace right now and has not been deterred by the usual internal disciplinary processes or other means, I’m all in favour of them being prosecuted and witnesses encouraged to come forward. And, if we have a press that was much freer in what it could write and comment about, its watchdog role would be far more powerful and would make many would-be aggressors and predators think twice about it. Because, as I and others have argued before, the freedom of the press is really our freedom, just as the freedom and power of Parliament is our power. It is desperately frustrating that this view or concept is not pursued and understood.