UK Politics

Contempt of court and the contempt of Twitter

BY Iain Martin | tweet iainmartin1   /  18 June 2016

When it is all over; when the UK has voted and decided one way or the other on whether it wants to remain in the EU; when the trial of Thomas Mair is concluded; it is greatly to be hoped that a smart publisher persuades Ian Jack to tackle the subject of the EU referendum and associated events.

Jack of the Guardian is arguably Britain’s finest “man of letters,” and he’s certainly one of my favourite journalists. His writing on the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana, and the “Diana moment” of national madness, captured that strange period perfectly. It will take something similar to explain and encapsulate the strange events of the last few weeks, when enthusiasm and campaigning energy crossed into hysteria. Whatever the facts of the case – and I’ll come to that in a second – a young MP, someone who was beyond doubt the best of British, is dead and two young children will never see their mother again.

On the case now being assembled against Thomas Mair, many of us have views or theories about why it happened and the climate in which it took place. I have; you may have too. But those views are irrelevant, and even more than that they are out of bounds now there is going to be a trial. Contempt of court provisions exist precisely to guarantee a fair trial and to ensure that the media does not scupper a prosecution.

This morning having broken a vow last night to ignore for the weekend social media (with its confusing rows, cross interjections and saloon bar sniping, and that’s just me) and observing the flow of speculation about motives and circumstances, I tweeted that contempt of court applies. I do wish I had not, because it particularly annoyed some nippy lawyers – who tend to dislike hacks talking about the law, their domain – and some non-journalists who thought it patronising. A few strange people refused to believe such provisions existed.

I also made a mistake when I said contempt laws “now” apply, as the word “now” was superflous, and I hesitated when writing it but wanted to emphasise that the flurry of speculation taking place “now” is unwarranted. The contempt law applied, of course, when Mair was arrested, as every journalist knows, but the often chaotic period between an arrest in a high profile case and the charge tends to be viewed as a grey area. Such is the public hunger for information and clarification that editors and newsdesks push it and newspaper lawyers keep an eye out and understand what is going on.

The police – in an unspoken pact – are sometimes quite happy to go along with what technically is a breach, as it keeps attention on the case when they might need further witnesses and more information that the hungry media might uncover. This can go very badly wrong, on the occasions when a suspect turns out later to be entirely innocent.

In my imperfect experience, the charge and first appearance in court to plead tends to change the dynamics. From that moment, it is broadly accepted in the mainstream media that it is safest to stick rigidly to the law, reporting – without comment – what happens in court. Today, when asked to give his name, Mair said: “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”

But whatever the eventual outcome (in relation to Mair’s mental condition and the extent to which what happened was terrorism or political) it is clear that the way in which politics is talked about should change after this referendum. I’m not saying it will; but it should.

On the Eurosceptic side, UKIP’s “breaking point” poster was downright sinister. Although this had nothing to do with Vote Leave, the official Leave campaign has hardly been blameless either, going too far on Turkey (and the campaign knows it) and persisting with the £350m figure that is at best contested and at worst complete garbage.

On the Remain side, the bullying falsehoods and exaggerations on economics have been deployed for months in a more insidious manner. Then, when it looked for a while as though Remain might even lose, this seemed to cause Remain supporters of my acquaintance to adopt a patronising, sneering “you’ll win and then you’ll be sorry” schtick that suggested they regarded their opponents as stupid.

There are many good arguments on both sides and patriots in both campaigns, which is one of the reasons I did not join in the cheering of Alex Massie’s piece the other day which caused a sensation, at least in its unredacted version. It seemed to me (and to others who told me they wanted to respond but did not think it was the time) that the millions of us who are concerned about the pace and scale of immigration, and who think the EU is a failing enterprise, were being implicated as having been complicit.

In the original piece, Alex was careful to say that Leave was not to blame for the murder of Jo Cox. But… there was a but, and there’s always a but when you want to tarnish those who disagree with you and associate them even at one remove with sinister forces.

Alex is a friend and I feel partly to blame for one aspect of the piece, because we were arguing in a good-natured fashion the other night about the recent Vote Leave advert on immigration. It’s politics, I shrugged, too glibly, which Alex did not like.

My point was simply that the use of emotive, exaggerated claims at the height of close race is hardly new and there is no use being shocked by it. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s team simply used footage of a mushroom cloud and a child to contrast their man with the Republican candidate. Vote Goldwater and start a nuclear war, think of the children, was the clear message. No-one being fair would say the ill-equipped Goldwater was keen to let off nuclear bombs, but LBJ was happy to create that impression.

New Labour was also extremely ruthless and unpleasant to its opponents. Ask Oliver Letwin, who was chased around rural Dorset because he dared to talk in 2001 off the record about the prospect of public sector spending restraint. A grinning Gordon “end of boom’n’bust” Brown in his pomp relished the pursuit and constant misrepresentation and demonisation of his opponents. Letwin’s £20bn turned out to be a rounding error compared to the cost of the UK being left so badly exposed – much worse than other countries – to the impact of the financial crisis. Brown liked it less when the media gave him a tough time after 2008.

Still, many of us – commentators and politicians on different sides, and me included – need to think about how to talk more calmly and respectfully while retaining the essential bite that discussing and covering politics deserves, because politics matters and those in power and in pursuit of power deserve scrutiny and healthy scepticism.

As a hack, too often in the anti-social media bubble, I can see too that what used to be reserved for the pub or the newsroom, a certain jaded way we had of talking about opponents and those in authority, has too often polluted the public sphere. The world-weary snarkiness must look pretty unpleasant, but it is a result of most people who report or comment on politics having been exposed to epic amounts of chicanery by leading politicians of all parties, which they later admit cheerily when you take them for lunch after they are out of the front-line.

But if there is to be reflection, and even a reckoning, plenty of others now lecturing everyone else need to reflect too and possibly admit past errors, or perhaps be quiet for a while. Gordon Brown, the man who used the loaded phrase “British jobs for British workers” in his appalling leader’s speech in 2008, now calls for a change in the discourse,  saying it poses questions for us all. Sadly, he instantly blames Leave and finds no room to reflect on his own conduct towards opponents and erstwhile allies down the years.

And amid all the demands – mainly from Remainers – for a more civil discourse, the prominent Remainer, Alastair Campbell, former head of communications to Tony Blair during the run-up to the Iraq War, had this to say today: “The freedom Britain needs is freedom from a nasty Brexit Lie Machine run by tax dodgers and multi-millionaire liars fuelling anger and hate.”

As my former boss, Andrew Neil put it in response: “Good to see campaign discourse become more civilised, less nasty, less hyperbolic, more reasoned, more respectful.”


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