“It was the Sun wot won it” crowed the front page after the 1992 general election. On the previous day, their front page warned the voters “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”. Sometime later, a story emerged that in a focus group someone said “I didn’t vote for Neil Kinnock because I heard he had a light bulb inside his head”. Entirely plausible, because people often have impressions of politicians and rarely — oh, so rarely — have the detail.
It would be no great surprise in a focus group today to discover that everyone believes David Cameron’s wife held a slumber party for Rebekah Brooks, when it was actually Sarah Brown; that Tony Blair went horse riding with Brooks when it was David Cameron; that Nick Clegg held a séance with James Murdoch, which I know to be untrue in the same way I know that Neil Kinnock never had a light bulb inside his head.
Which is why when it comes to this next step towards truth and reconciliation between the media and politicians, we should all be cautious. People will, at the end of this, believe that all of them are as bad as each other, and be left with an impression of sleaze running through the media, police and politics.
Don’t get me wrong — there most definitely should be a judicial inquiry, which goes wider than News International. As Nick Clegg says in his speech today:
… a fundamentally corrupted relationship between politics, the media, and the police. All these groups are supposed to serve the people. But too often they have been serving only themselves or each other. A light has been shone on the murky underworld of British public life. A world in which confidential information is for sale; in which journalists cross the line from public interest into vulgar voyeurism; and politicians, petrified of the power of the media, fail in their duty to ensure a free, accountable, plural press.
It is an excellent speech with a strong commitment to a free press, that gives everyone an insight into the significant work he has put in on this issue behind the scenes. It raises the opportunity to have a decent debate on what comes next after the flabby and flaccid Press Complaint Commission.
But so far, only a paving slab has been overturned. Observing all the stuff that is coming out is like watching the creepy crawlies under one slab. We now have an inquiry that will pull up the whole pavement. Whilst it will marginally improve things for the Liberal Democrats and for Ed Miliband, for senior politicians in both Labour and the Conservatives, this will be the expenses story all over again. So the loser will be the reputation of politics itself. Therefore, there is a danger even to those who come out of this inquiry squeaky clean.
Like the expenses scandal, politicians will be tempted down the route of some kind of half-cock, self-flagellation style IPSA idea, as a backlash reaction against the massive outcry. IPSA is system of financial scrutiny in Parliament which is almost unworkable and punishes all MPs.
Yesterday Labour’s Tom Harris MP who has long campaigned on media issues summed it up perfectly in a tweet:
Journalists illegally tap people’s phones. The response? Force MPs to publically record every meeting with media. Utterly. Bloody. Bonkers.
A strong and vibrant belief in politics may be what we sacrifice in the last roll of a dice of a retiring judge. This may end up as a backlash against politicians, triggered by an appalling act by people who should simply be developing a new and entirely different relationship with the police — one which ends with a conviction.