If you want to picture Rupert Murdoch imagine an old man on a tight rope. On the one hand, his newspapers must pursue his interests – say that everyone but the rich must pay the price of austerity, for instance. But as he wobbles over the void, Murdoch must also balance his rather brutal class interest with populist attacks on ‘the elite’ to assure readers of modest means that he is, despite everything, ‘on their side’.
Normally the Murdoch press can stay upright by confining itself to savaging the liberal elite, which to be fair, never fails to provide him with a rich choice of targets. But every now again it feasts on blue blood.
The Times – which is becoming a tabloid in content as well as form these days – has been saying in essence that Andrew Mitchell was guilty of calling a Downing Street police officer a ‘fucking pleb’. The campaign to vindicate Mitchell is a waste of time. The Independent Police Complaints Commissioner was a fool when she said the web of false statements and leaks from the police amounted to a conspiracy in all but name. Her statement that officers had ‘brought shame upon the police service’ could not have been more false.
Yesterday The Times ran the headline ‘The Truth about Plebgate’. But the bathetic story underneath did not reveal ‘the truth’ or anything like it. Instead, it had an account from Ian Richardson, a retired officer, who was on duty when Andrew Mitchell tried to cycle through the gates of Downing Street. This was the moment which led to the Met’s Chief Commissioner, the Police Federation, the Sun, the Telegraph, the Labour Party and just about everybody else claiming that, rather than just cursing the men who blocked his path, as Mitchell admitted, he used the career-killing insult of “plebs” – until, that is, the cops’ story began to unravel.
We should still believe it, says the Times, because Richardson had told it that Mitchell had indeed called the brave officers charged with protecting our leaders from terrorist plebs.
Only when you turn to an inside page does the Times admit that its “nearest thing to an eye witness” was not much of a witness: “He heard very little of the exchange and did not hear the word ‘pleb’.”
It gets worse.
The Times says its witness arrived as Mitchell was pushing his bike out on to Whitehall.
“What had happened there?” Mr Richardson asked his colleague.
He says PC Rowland immediately recounted his version of the exchange that the Chief Whip said “Best learn your fucking place….You lot don’t run this fucking government. …You’re fucking plebs.”
Except that as Dan Hodges of the Telegraph pointed out yesterday, we do not know what was said, as every honest observer from the Independent Police Complaints Commissioner onwards admits, but we do have
Video footage of the entire incident sitting on various sites on the internet. It shows Andrew Mitchell as he pushes his bike along the path towards the exit gate. Mr Richardson does not arrive before he reaches the gate. He does not stop and ask “what happened here”. PC Rowlands does not stop, turn to his colleague and immediately recount his version of what happened.
I’m not saying the retired officer is making it up, just that the video shows that his memory may be defective. On Twitter, but not in the paper, the Times’ crime correspondent says that, well, the video that the public has seen is incomplete. He does not say whether he has seen the full version or how he explains the failure of what looks like a full account of Mitchell’s departure from Downing Street to back up his story. I asked him for an explanation. He had not responded at the time of going to press.
It gets even worse.
On today’s front page, the Times runs as “news” the story that “Leaked Plebgate e-mail points finger at Mitchell”. Underneath, the breathless headline it says, “A Metropolitan Police email reveals that officers on Britain’s most closely guarded street had asked for guidance on how to handle [Mitchell’s] repeated demand to cycle through the main gates [of Downing Street].”
Leave aside that the story shows that the Leveson inquiry has silenced police whistleblowers, while leaving the cops free to continue to leak information that suits their interests, and remind yourself that the story is no story at all. Right at the start of the affair Mitchell said in public that he had a previous argument with officers.
It gets worse still.
Mitchell’s friends remind me that he is suing the Sun for libel about its original accusations against him. The Sun is the Times’s sister paper but nowhere in yesterday’s or today’s edition does it declare that its parent company has a commercial interest in Mitchell’s reputation being discredited and his libel action failing.
Now if one were to suspend all normal scepticism, I suppose it remains a theoretical possibility that the Times is not as wrong as it appears to be. But theory is defeated by practice in this instance. Every piece of irrefutable evidence – and I mean every piece – that has emerged since Mitchell was forced to resign has vindicated his account and damned the police. A judge sent one officer to prison for lying through his teeth about what he saw in Downing Street – he wasn’t even there. The CCTV flatly contradicted the police account, just as it contradicts the Times’s account. The Independent Police Complaints Commissioner is investigating three Police Federation officials for the stories they spun about Mitchell – or rather she wants to investigate them: the federation is going to court to try to stop her.
There comes a point when seeking to be “balanced” and showing a willingness to “listen to other side” becomes perverse. That point was reached in the Mitchell affair long ago, when Mitchell overcame the enormous difficulties all citizens face in confronting an unscrupulous state, and uncovered detailed evidence of official mendacity.
Why isn’t that the scandal? Beyond the Murdoch press’s business interests, lies the injured feelings of crime correspondents. They led the mob that forced Mitchell out, and hate to admit they were wrong. (The same bad faith could affect the political commentators, if Ed Miliband proves that their predictions that he could never win an election were so much nonsense.) But there is more to it than that.
Writing about Mitchell in last Sunday’s Observer, I said that Robert Harris, a friend of Mitchell’s, had compared his treatment to the Dreyfus affair.
Harris is going over the top, but you can see his point. France in the 1890s had a large rightwing constituency, which wanted to believe that a spy in the French army had to be a treacherous Jew. The British left in the 2010s, and many others besides, want to believe in Tory posh boys, who will abuse the brave and honest coppers willing to put themselves in the line of fire.
In other words, whatever your politics, whatever your inclinations, if you read a story that suits your prejudices perfectly, don’t believe it.