The Andrew Mitchell case is not isolated, and there are grounds for a Royal Commission
By Peter Oborne
8:32PM BST 16 Oct 2013
When the allegations against Andrew Mitchell were first made, my sympathies were entirely with the police. I have frequently witnessed shatteringly rude or overbearing conduct by senior politicians towards minor functionaries. This kind of behaviour, which amounts to abuse of power, is completely detestable.
There seemed little reason to disbelieve police claims that Mr Mitchell had behaved in the way that they described. There was certainly no reason why a Cabinet minister should be exempt from the consequences. When David Cameron finally sacked him, my only criticism was that the Prime Minister had been rather too slow to take action.
It is now clear that I (along with many others) owe Mr Mitchell an apology. After the finding from the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) that three police officers lied about their dealings with him, it can be said with confidence that Mr Mitchell has been (at least in this regard) the victim of a police conspiracy.
Furthermore, it is important to bear in mind that Mr Mitchell’s ill treatment stretches far beyond the events described in the IPCC report. Footage obtained by Michael Crick, political correspondent for Channel 4 News, casts severe doubt on the original police account of his argument outside Downing Street; it is possible that a police log was fabricated, and certain that an officer pretended to be a passer-by in order to smear him further.
These lies can only have been intended to damage Mr Mitchell. And they were effective: he was forced to resign and for several months his career lay in ruins. For a time he suffered from something close to clinical depression and he lost two stone. Only now is he being rehabilitated; there is talk that David Cameron has promised to appoint him as the next British commissioner in Brussels.
Despite all this, my sympathy with Mr Mitchell is limited. In one very important sense he is an extraordinarily fortunate man. He is rich, powerful, well-educated and has a large number of very influential friends (including Charles Moore of the Telegraph, the Tory MP David Davis and the novelist Robert Harris), who admirably stood by him and spoke up for him during his long personal crisis.
They deserve great credit for their loyalty. Mr Harris has even romantically compared Mr Mitchell’s misfortunes to the Dreyfus affair, the great French scandal of the late 19th century, when a Jewish officer was falsely accused of treason.
Perhaps so, but let’s imagine that Mr Mitchell was not a Cambridge-educated Cabinet minister, but rather a young man without connections from one of Britain’s many council estates. If the police had tried to plant fabricated evidence on him, he would never have stood a chance. It is unlikely that our most famous politicians, newspaper columnists and novelists would have rallied round, or that the fearless political correspondent of Channel 4 News would have come to his rescue. The young man might have protested his innocence, but few would have believed him. When he turned up in court, a duty solicitor would probably have advised him to plead guilty, after which he might or might not have gone to jail. We are not talking about a career setback here, but a life ruined.
I know this will sound shocking, but few who spend time in British courts wait long before coming across cases where the police have misrepresented, or made up, or suppressed evidence. Here’s a couple of cases at random. Muslim student Rizwaan Sabir was held without charge as a terrorist suspect, yet West Midlands Police (according to its own professional standards unit) fabricated key elements of the case against him. Karim Allison accused an officer from Cleveland Police of making what he claimed was a racist comment. In response, the policeman and other members of the force produced evidence that resulted in Mr Allison being convicted at the magistrates’ court for obstructing a police officer in the execution of his duties. This was later overturned, and compensation awarded; the jury found that it was more likely than not that the evidence against him was fabricated, although Cleveland Police insisted the inconsistencies resulted from the officer’s inexperience.
There are, in addition, numerous cases where strong allegations have been made that the police have fabricated evidence to get a conviction. The resulting civil prosecutions tend to get settled out of court, so that you never get a judgment clearly stating that the officers were lying.
This is all going to get a great deal worse now that Chris Grayling (whom I suppose we must continue to refer to by his formal office as Lord Chancellor) is slashing legal aid and making judicial review financially unfeasible. Britain today has a two-tier legal system, just like health and education. You can either buy your way to expensive advice, or rely on state-funded representation. This works fine when the police can be trusted to tell the truth. But when they are prepared to lie it becomes a different matter.
Let’s now return to the three police officers (Insp Ken MacKaill, Det Sgt Stuart Hinton and Sgt Chris Jones) who, according to the IPCC, lied about Andrew Mitchell. Let’s remember that these men are all trusted with the power of arrest, with gathering evidence, and expect to be heard with great respect in court. Juries routinely convict on the basis of what they say. And yet the police chiefs they work for have refused to take action against them.
Traditionally, the police force has – quite rightly – demanded special protections. Assaulting a police officer is a special category of offence, with draconian penalties. Verbal abuse of a police officer is much worse than swearing at a stranger – which was the key reason why I felt it right that Andrew Mitchell should resign.
But surely there should be a reciprocal obligation, and the public should be entitled to demand reasonably high standards of honesty from the police. Those who lie and cheat, especially when providing evidence that can be used against criminal suspects in court, should themselves be punished exceptionally severely, and held up to public contempt.
Yet we know that this is not the case. Again and again, convenient strategies have been used for police officers found guilty of making up evidence, such as early retirement or sudden psychiatric problems. The Mitchell case is not isolated. It is just the latest of a number where the police have meddled with, altered, destroyed or fabricated vital material: think of the Hillsborough tragedy, the Lawrence inquiry, the aftermath of the Jean Charles de Menezes shooting, and more besides.
Something has gone wrong with many British institutions over the past few decades. Parliament had its expenses scandal, the intelligence services were complicit in telling lies about Iraq, bankers nearly destroyed the economy, and journalists are still being brought to account for phone hacking. It is time to acknowledge that the police force faces a crisis of such gravity that it can only be solved by setting up a Royal Commission.
Politicians will hate it because it will eat up time and money, and the police will rise up in protest. But it is necessary, as much for the police force itself as for society. Policing is a splendid and noble profession, and often our police are asked to do unpleasant and dangerous things. But the moment their word can no longer be believed is the moment society trends towards anarchy. That point has now been reached.