Why Unison is wrong to seek the sacking and arrest of Jeremy Clarkson

The public sector trade union scores a spectacular PR own goal.

The trade union Unison is seeking "urgent legal advice" about what to do regarding Jeremy Clarkson's comments about strikers being "executed in front of their families. The press release -- the words are put to the mouth of Dave Prentis, Unison General Secretary -- is worth reading carefully.

Clarkson's comments on the One Show were totally outrageous, and they cannot be tolerated. We are seeking urgent legal advice about what further action we can take against him and the BBC, and whether or not his comments should be referred to the police.

In fact, the comments were the sort of thing one expects from Jeremy Clarkson. In their way, they are neither more nor less outrageous than, say, the Scottish comedian Limmy wishing Margaret Thatcher dead. In neither case were the comments particularly funny.

And complaints to the BBC or Ofcom are one thing, but the possible referring to the police is quite another. Should someone -- even Clarkson -- face arrest, charging, prosecution, and even conviction, in these circumstances? Is it not clear that Clarkson's comments were at least intended to be a joke?

Anyway, the press release continues.

Public sector workers and their families are utterly shocked by Jeremy Clarkson's revolting comments. We know that many other licence fee payers share our concerns about his outrageous views. The One Show is broadcast at a time when children are watching -- they could have been scared and upset by his aggressive statements. An apology is not enough -- we are calling on the BBC to sack Jeremy Clarkson immediately. Such disgusting statements have no place on our TV screens.

So, won't somebody, please, think of the children?

More seriously, here we have a trade union calling for someone to be summarily sacked. No disciplinary procedure, no due process, no contract rights: the man should be fired immediately.

And there's more.

Jeremy Clarkson clearly needs a reminder of just who he is talking about when he calls for public sector workers to be shot in front of their families. Whilst he is driving round in fast cars for a living, public sector workers are busy holding our society together -- they save others' lives on a daily basis, they care for the sick, the vulnerable, the elderly. They wipe bottoms, noses, they help children to learn, and empty bins -- they deserve all our thanks -- certainly not the unbelievable level of abuse he threw at them.

There is no doubt that this sentiment is correct.

But it avoids the question of whether public sector workers are well served by their trade union using scarce resources to pay lawyers for advice on getting Clarkson arrested or sacked on the spot. It is also odd that Unison is risking its credibility - which is vitally important for all its members - in deploying such a misconceived and illiberal PR move. And it is sad that all this has achieved is to make Clarkson the story, and not Unison's members and their demands.

So I put many of these concerns to Unison:

1. How much money is Unison proposing to spend on this "urgent legal advice"?
2. Is this a good use of Unison 's scarce resources?
3. Which law firm is supplying the advice?
4. Is it illiberal to call for police involvement? Should someone really face arrest, prosecution, and conviction in these circumstances?
5. Has Unison scored an own goal with this press release?

Their reply to these detailed queries?

All we can say at the moment is that "We are standing up for our members, it is an outrageous comment to make on early evening programme.

And then they just referred me back to their press release.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Not for the first time, James Brokenshire is making things worse in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's questions on Jeremy Corbyn and the IRA are valid. But he shouldn't be asking them for the sake of the Tory campaign. 

Consensus is an elusive thing in Northern Irish politics. But ask anyone how well James Brokenshire is handling his brief, and the answer from many is almost inevitably a variation on “not very”.

There are plenty of reasons for this. Some are fairer than others. But an overriding concern among nationalist and cross-community parties is that the Northern Ireland secretary cannot and has not acted as a neutral or honest broker in his time in office. They believe him to be both too close to the DUP and all too ready to take nakedly partisan lines on the issues that continue to disrupt the business of devolved government.

The legacy of Troubles violence is one such issue. By far the rawest of the disagreements looming over Stormont, neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have brooked much compromise. That Brokenshire hasn’t been able to solve these issues in his 11 months in office isn’t all that remarkable.

One might even sympathise: few cabinet wickets are stickier than Northern Ireland, more so now than at any point in the last decade. Some – though not all – nationalists are instinctively hostile to his presence and think talks ought to be handled with kid gloves, preferably worn by a grizzled American senator.  

What is remarkable, however, is how prepared Brokenshire has been to make that situation worse – this time apparently for the sake of influencing an election his party is almost certain to win. On Monday, the secretary of state – who appears to have spent most of the general election campaign in his Bexley constituency – issued a statement via the Conservative party that challenged Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell (whose party, unlike the Tories, do not stand in Northern Ireland) to clarify their record on the IRA.

Whether these questions are valid – and they are – is irrelevant. What matters is whether they ought to be being asked by a serving secretary of state for Northern Ireland at this stage in an election. It is, to put it lightly, pretty difficult to conclude that they are. Here, not for the first time, we see Brokenshire moving in lockstep with the right-wing press away from the consensus – or at the very least sensitive, though not uncritical, engagement with both sides – so desperately necessary for the restoration of devolved government.

As I wrote when Theresa May called the election last month, the impasse at Stormont means this election cannot be siloed from the mainland campaign. I predicted that electioneering pitched at middle England will feed into the culture wars that still dominate Northern Ireland's politics. The province's troubled past remains a live issue and continues to disrupt the business of devolved government. It was clear that attacking Corbyn with the Lynton Crosby playbook will do nothing to defuse it.

And so it hasn’t. The IRA dead cat was of course to be expected, but for Brokenshire to be the one throwing it on the table is almost ridiculous. Some might argue, as they have before, that he has derelicted his duty as secretary of state for the sake of the shortest-term political expediency. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams says the flurry of Tory-provoked interest in Corbyn’s record on the IRA is a “distraction”. Well, he of all people would. But the underlying truth is this. If we can learn anything from the fitful past few years at Stormont, it’s that arguments over legacy issues are nearly impossible to mediate.

Not for the first time, Brokenshire has made his own job – if he intends to stay in it – much more difficult. And if he is destined for pastures new in May's victory reshuffle, then his successor will not thank him for the febrile and distrustful atmosphere he has helped create. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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