Selective evidence: an ugly political game

Commentary surrounding the horrific Rochdale case speaks more for the critics than the victims.

As a polemicist, you’re faced with a choice when something as horrific and complicated as the crimes in Rochdale comes along. Do you research it, investigate it, look into it, and then arrive at your conclusions? Or do you simply see everything on the table as being evidence that you’ve been right all along? 

Look, I am a polemicist myself; here I am, writing this blog. And there’s a temptation to see a big news story, especially a shocking one like this, as something that can be scavenged for easy reaction. 

But this isn’t any ordinary news story: it’s a story about sexual predators and young people in care. It’s a story that involves lives being shattered and vulnerable people having been abused. Is it really the time to be picking over the evidence and looking for things that prove you right so you can stick two fingers up at your opponents? 

Julie Bindel writing in the Guardian sees the story as evidence that the media would rather focus on the ethnicity of the offenders than the fact that young girls have been preyed upon. Melanie Phillips, in the Daily Mail, says that this was a consequence of the "Islamophobia witch-hunt".  

Reading through blogs and opinion pieces from the usual suspects, it’s clear that a lot of disparate people with frequently opposing views have all found something to take from these crimes and claim as proof that they’re right. 

Of course they may all be right; they may all have focused on different aspects of the whole picture. Or they may all be wrong, focusing just on the things they want to see. But it’s interesting to see how this case, this shocking case in which real people’s lives have been ruined and wrecked beyond almost all comprehension, should have coincidentally proved so many commentators right about the things they believed before the trial took place. 

The guilty verdicts came in, and the keyboards started clicking. You and I could have predicted with a fair degree of certainty what was going to be said before it was said – some of these things just write themselves, after a while, and don’t even need the author’s byline there to give it credibility. Just feed the data into a machine and it’ll come out nicely and neatly arranged in the same predictable pattern. 

The thing is, what have we actually learned from these crimes, these wrecked lives and this whole miserable affair? Some conclusions were probably already drawn before the verdicts were delivered. Nick Griffin, of course, chose to make gleeful political capital out of it, before two of the convictions had even been decided upon – though anyone on a jury who could possibly be influenced by a Nick Griffin tweet shouldn’t be serving on a jury in the first place. 

I found myself increasingly frustrated when reading commentary on this episode. Some people were desperate to downplay whatever racial or cultural element to the crime there had been; others were determined to show that there was, and that their political opponents were somehow in part responsible for these men’s actions. It was not an entirely edifying spectacle, and the victims didn’t seem to be at the forefront of many writers’ concerns. 

Cheap political capital: a member of the BNP demonstrates outside the Liverpool Crown Court. Photo: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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How long will general election campaigning be suspended after the Manchester attack?

Parties have suspended political activities in a mark of respect. 

In the middle of the night, as news broke that an explosion in Manchester had killed scores of concertgoers, political parties reacted almost instantly. Campaigning was cancelled. For at least 24 hours.

Then the details of what happened emerged. That the explosion was deliberately created by a suicide bomber. That little girls died in the blast. Campaigning was suspended indefinitely.

But what does this mean for 8 June 2017? When will campaigning resume, and how? While most see the suspension of the political battle as a matter of respect, some, such as the blogger Guido Fawkes, argue that doing so only gives “the enemies of democracy some satisfaction”.

Here is what we know so far:

The parties have suspended national campaigning

All the mainstream parties have agreed to suspend national campaigning, and are likely to agree together before resuming campaigning again. 

However, Labour has advised candidates that local campaigning is at their discretion. If it does happen, it will be leaflets through doors, rather than public stalls.

Broadcast interviews have also been cancelled

The BBC's Andrew Neil interviewed Theresa May on Monday night, in what was supposed to be the first of a series of interviews with the leaders of different political parties. However, the second, with Ukip’s Paul Nuttall, was scrapped. 

A BBC spokeswoman said: "Following tragic events in Manchester, The Andrew Neil Interviews will not go ahead as planned whilst election campaigning is suspended." The decision to resume interviews is likely to reflect when campaigning resumes. 

The suspension is a gesture of respect

The UK terrorist threat level has risen to “critical”. Since the Westminster Parliament was the target of a terrorist attack only two months ago, you might think one of the primary reasons for stopping campaigning would be the security of the public figures involved.

However, party sources say the main motivation for suspending the campaign is out of respect, and a realisation that the public does not want to see parties squabbling at this point in time. 

Indeed, so far, politicians have not exactly been hiding. The Prime Minister Theresa May went to Manchester on Tuesday morning, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and home secretary Amber Rudd attended the vigil in the evening. 

No one really knows when campaigning will resume

Because the parties want to begin campaigning at the same time, there is no fixed time for when candidates hit the streets again. However, the awkward fact remains that we are halfway through a general election campaign. The Scottish National Party cancelled its manifesto launch after the terror attack. So while “indefinite means indefinite”, as one party source told me, it can’t really mean 8 June. 

When the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered during the EU referendum, campaigning was suspended for three days before resuming again. If the same rule is applied, campaigning may start as early as Friday. However, the parties may prefer to wait until the weekend, and make a fresh start on Monday.

The Scottish Greens certainly seem to be planning for this. A planned manifesto launch on Friday has been postponed, but may happen on Monday. 

Campaigning may look a bit different when it starts

When campaigning does resume, it is likely to be a gradual process, rather than epic photo ops and rosettes. In the meantime, expect more scrutiny of parties’ policies on terrorism, security and civil liberties. 
 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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