What happens when you swear at the police, when you're not Andrew Mitchell

Whether or not the Chief Whip said “plebs” is irrelevant if he is allowed to evade the rule of law applicable to the ordinary people, says Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi.

One summer evening, back in August 2005, Andrew Michael Southard was arrested because he swore at a police officer.

Southard and his brother were out cycling when two officers stopped them one evening in central Portsmouth. As the officers searched his brother, Andrew took pictures of the incident on his mobile phone saying, “Don’t fucking touch me, you can’t touch him.” This and telling the officer to “fuck off” led to his immediate arrest.

Southard was charged, and later convicted in the magistrates court, of using “threatening, insulting and abusive behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby, contrary to section 5(1) and (6) of the Public Order Act 1986”.

Southard’s case is not unusual. Swearing at a police officer is the common cause for many young people (as young as 12 in the case of a pint-sized offender arrested and convicted under the Public Order Act because he called an officer "a wanker"), ending up embroiled in the criminal justice system.

For many of the young people continuously stopped and searched by police where I live in East London there is a thin line between a routine stop and a hearing at the mags with a criminal record looming over your future. Irritated because this is the second time you have been stopped today? Stopped at a tube station, angry because everyone is staring and thinking you're a criminal? Swear in frustration and they have you, a perfectly legitimate arrest under the Public Order Act.

The Sun newspaper reported today that Andrew Mitchell said to a police officer last week: “Best you learn your f***ing place. You don’t run this f***ing government. You’re f***ing plebs.” A kid in Hackney saying half as much to an officer last Wednesday would be in the magistrates court this morning fighting for bail.

So it is galling that Andrew Mitchell has not been arrested, charged, and made to put his defence to the courts, the way countless young people are obliged to every day.

And it is galling that the media and other politicians are chiding him only for being “discourteous” and “rude”.  Even worse, that left-leaning commentators and politicians are only aghast at the use of the word “pleb”. Those class warriors wringing their hands over Tory snobbery are just as out of touch. Whether or not he said “plebs” is irrelevant if he is allowed to evade the rule of law applicable to the ordinary people.

It is precisely such rampant hypocrisy that fuels the sense of disenfranchisement that contributed to the rioting last year. Then commentators compared looters to MPs fiddling expenses, an odd comparison as the situations are very different. But here, in a rare instance where the experience of a politician mirrors life lived by ordinary people, there is a real analogy to be made. Here we have a politician breaking the law in the same way teenagers do every day, swearing in frustration at a public official. Yet he is not being hauled to court to defend or explain his actions; instead it is trial by Twitter and Radio 4, at worst he may have to resign. Where is the justice in that.

Police outside the Downing Street gate. Photo: Getty Images

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi reports and writes on immigration, women and economics, housing, legal aid, and mental health. Read her latest work here. Her blog rebeccaomonira.com was shortlisted for the 2012 Orwell Prize. She tweets @Rebecca_Omonira.

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.