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Media: "Plebgate" - missing the point

Richard North, 23/12/2012  


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The Mail on Sunday and many others devote huge amounts of space to the "Plebgate" affair today. But the focus at the moment is on the police, with the loss-making Observer recording a senior Tory slamming the "cancer" of corruption in the UK police service.

Actually, there isn't a UK police service. There are 43 territorial police "services" – give or take. All are different, and some are more corrupt than others. It doesn't always pay to generalise.

But, while Met police are in the frame, what seems to have been completely missed is that this whole scandal started on 21 September when the The Sun published details of the alleged incident. But that report was based on a false e-mail, sent by 52-year-old police officer Keith Wallis, a member of the Diplomatic Protection Group, purporting to be a constituent of the deputy chief whip, John Randall.

As Raedwald points out, there are a number of reasons why this e-mail should have been regarded with the deepest suspicion. But whether it was, or was not, the fact is that one of Britain's best-selling newspapers went to press with a false claim, the provenance of which they had not established.

This is what so-called "fact-checking" is supposed to be all about. Before going with such a damaging allegation against Andrew Mitchell, there should be a completely independent source of information, which provides corroboration. At the time The Sun went to press, that was not available.

Furthermore the story was run by chief political correspondent Tom Newton Dunn, who has a somewhat elastic regard for the truth, a man who admits to inventing stories which he knows to be untrue.

This time, however, Newton Dunn can claim that he had corroboration. John Tully, Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, was cited in Dunn's original press report, having supposedly spoken to the officer alleged to have been abused by Mitchell.

There, we now get into the depths of the "Plebgate" affair, as the Federation has now acknowledged that it deliberately "stoked up" the incident as part of its wider campaign against police cuts.

Latterly, we learn (from the Observer) that the West Midlands Police Federation employed the radio presenter and former Sun columnist Jon Gaunt to advise it on a campaign to protect its members from cutbacks. Its members were given media training and, once "Plebgate" erupted, were issued with "PC Pleb" T-shirts that ensured the Mitchell row enjoyed sustained newspaper coverage.

Says the Observer, in a stunt orchestrated by Gaunt - whose PR company, Gaunt Brothers, lists the Sun newspaper as a client - three senior members of the West Midlands federation met Mitchell at his Sutton Coldfield constituency office. The meeting was flagged to the press and the media scrum and ensuing interest heaped further pressure on Mitchell who resigned only days later.

The question thus arises as to whether a police trade union, involved in an active campaign against the government, can be regarded as able reliably to corroborate testimony against a government minister.

Given that that was all there was available at the time, I think any objective assessment might suggest that evidence on which Newton Dunn went to press, was very slender indeed. It wasn't until 25 September, when the full text of the police log was leaked to the Daily Telegraph, that there was apparently reliable corroboration.

Even then, similarities between the log and the original e-mail should have raised suspicions – but that is another story. The point so far is that the story in The Sun hardly supports Lord Justice Leveson's assertion that mainstream journalists enjoy a "powerful reputation for accuracy".

The police may come very badly out of this incident – the politicians equally so – but the legacy media has nothing to be proud about either.

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