Some flaws in the received wisdom
Several propositions are acquiring the status of well-known truths from frequent repetition, despite all being false. For example, —
Proposition 1: The News of the World phone-tapping scandal will run and run, eclipsing even MPs’ expenses (predicted by an enthusiastic Andrew Neil, a former Murdoch editor). I very much doubt it. The principle that ‘dog don’t eat dog’ (i.e. newspapers and other media organs don’t attack each other) will reassert itself, not least because there must be many other newspapers besides the grubby ones belonging to the Dirty Digger which have resorted to dirty tricks in search of a squalid scoop, including hiring private ‘investigators’ to tap mobile phones and bribing the authorities for illicit information. It looks as if some policemen may have been accepting money from the press in exchange for confidential information, which if true may tend to cool the ardour of the cops for a rigorous police investigation — although at present this is pure speculation. Some MPs may well try to keep up the pressure on the tabloids and try to get some of them prosecuted, but without intensive media support they probably won’t get very far. Nor will either of the main parties’ leaders want to encourage their flocks to do anything likely to irritate Rupert Murdoch, especially with a general election coming up.
The pity is that interest is focusing on the tapping of mobile phones, simply because that is unarguably illegal, whereas what deserves much broader condemnation is the cruelty and unscrupulousness of the Murdoch press (and several others) in hounding public figures, parading their prurient obsession with ‘exposures’ of aspects of their private lives which should be of no concern whatever either to the media or to the rest of us. They don’t hesitate to take advantage of the natural assumption by many tabloid readers, bloggers and contributors to phone-in programmes that it must be “in the public interest” to reveal anything that some members of the public are interested in. It’s in the public interest, but not in the interests of the gutter press, that public figures, like the rest of us, should enjoy a degree of privacy in their and our private lives. But there’s good money to be made and circulation figures to be inflated by blatant and unprincipled invasion of other people’s privacy, wrecking lives, breaking up families, and ruining reputations in the process. Tapping mobile phones is only the tip of a poisonous iceberg. But who dares to denounce the Digger?
Proposition 2: Damian McBride and Derek Draper were responsible for the public smearing of prominent Tory politicians and in some cases their wives. No, actually they weren’t. No public smearing was involved in exchanging those private e-mails, however puerile and irresponsible their content. They never acted on the proposals they discussed between themselves and there’s not a shred of evidence that they ever seriously intended to (nor would it be relevant even if that had been their firm intention). It was our old chum Guido Fawkes, alias Paul Staines, who passed the smears to a national newspaper, complete with the names of those smeared, on the clear understanding that they would be published, names and all, regardless of the pain and damage they would cause to the victims, at least some of whom were innocent of the allegations against them. Yet it’s by now “common knowledge” that McBride and Draper were the guilty parties. It does seem, of course, that McBride at least had been an enthusiastic practitioner of the political dark arts for a long time, so perhaps the blame heaped on him for the one vile offence that he had not committed was a kind of rough justice. It’s ironical, though, that he was not guilty of the one thing alleged against him which caused his downfall — if indeed it was a downfall; it’s rumoured that despite his ejection from No. 10, he’s still busy e-mailing away in the cause of his distinguished master. True? I have no idea.
Proposition 3: The police were at fault in arresting and questioning the Tory MP Damian Green in his parliamentary office over the leaks he had been receiving from a mole in the Home Office, and former Speaker, Michael Martin, was at fault in allowing this to happen. Again, not so. There was clear prima facie evidence of a probable offence having been committed, either under common law or possibly under criminal statute; the civil service head of the department concerned was unquestionably right to ask the police to investigate it; and the police were equally obviously right to agree to do so. MPs have no immunity from police investigation of possible offences, whether in the Palace of Westminster or anywhere else. If the Speaker had sought to prevent the police from arresting and questioning Damian Green and searching his office, he would have been open to the charge of perverting the course of justice. The police had not obtained an ordinary search warrant, but they had got something even better than that: formal permission from the Serjeant-at-Arms, the senior parliamentary official responsible for security, to go ahead. The fact that in the end the Director of Public Prosecutions decided that Mr Green should not be charged (because of the likely difficulty of getting a conviction) didn’t and doesn’t mean that no offence had been committed, as the DPP himself made publicly clear at the time. The DPP also declared that a police investigation of the known facts had been inevitable.
It’s rather sad that Speaker Martin’s perfectly correct action in not intervening to stop the police carrying out their investigations in an MP’s parliamentary office turned out to be one of the most serious indictments in the charge sheet that led to his downfall. On that indictment at least he was Not Guilty. But how many people remember that now? How many will remember it in a year’s time, or in a decade from now? What he did was undoubtedly not only correct, but also “in the public interest”. The trouble was that a lot of MPs thought it wasn’t in their interests to let some future Speaker think he could get away with exposing them to the possibility of being questioned by the police within the precincts of parliament. By such means is the concept of parliamentary privilege extended into areas where it doesn’t belong.
Proposition 4: Sarah Brown, the prime minister’s wife, is Britain’s First Lady. Tell that to the Queen! Nice and estimable person though Mrs Brown seems to be — she actually Twitters, for example — the First Lady she’s not. But pontificating press reviewers on television, among a good many others, don’t seem to know that.
Proposition 5: The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 succeeded in its purpose of stopping the ethnic cleansing of the Kosovo Albanians by the Serbs and stopped the outflow of Kosovo Albanian refugees from Kosovo into neighbouring countries. Actually the NATO attack on Yugoslavia accelerated and intensified the ethnic cleansing, and the flow of Kosovo refugees into neighbouring countries began after the start of the NATO bombing. But don’t get me started on that again! Just have a look at some of the evidence here.
Proposition 6: The last Tsar of all the Russias was a grandson of Queen Victoria. Well, it’s true that he looked a lot like the British Duke of Kent (don’t ask me which one). But, as his Wikipedia entry confirms,
Nicholas was the son of Emperor Alexander III and Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia, the latter of whom was born ‘Princess Dagmar of Denmark’. His paternal grandparents were Emperor Alexander II and Empress Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, the latter of whom was born ‘Princess Marie of Hesse’. His maternal grandparents were King Christian IX of Denmark and Princess Louise of Hesse-Kassel.
Sorry about that.
There are a whole lot more widely believed myths about the (British) royal family, such as that the Queen is German and that Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, had to be evacuated from Greece as a small child by a Royal Navy ship in both a hurry and a cot made from an orange box. Oh, sorry: that last bit is true. (And did you know that he’s as much Danish as Greek by origin?)