by Stephen Tall on December 21, 2012
Welcome to the 26th in our series, Liberal Hero of the Week, chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum. ’Liberal Heroes’ showcases those who promote the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — highlighting individuals regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism then they’re in contention.
Chief political correspondent, Channel 4 News
Reason: For his pursuit of the truth in the case of the Andrew Mitchell ‘plebgate’ affair.
“Michael Crick is in reception”. These are apparently five of the most terrifying words a politician can hear. Not this week, though. This week, it was Channel 4 News’s chief political correspondent who rode to the rescue of a damned MP in distress, Andrew Mitchell, forced to resign as Conservative chief whip in October after the ‘plebgate’ row leached his political credibility.
Three phrases looked likely to condemn Mr Mitchell forever in the eyes of the public and his own colleagues. Attributed to him in the official police log of the now infamous incident at the Downing Street gates, Mr Mitchell is alleged to have ranted in front of several ‘shocked’ eyewitnesses:
“Best you learn your f****** place… you don’t run this f****** government… You’re f****** plebs.”
Andrew Mitchell always denied uttering these words, though he did concede he swore in exasperation under his breath, “I thought you guys were supposed to f****** help us”. So guilty of some passive-aggressive rudeness, yes. But what about that word ‘pleb’, far more offensive to many than all the effing? Its resonance cannot be underestimated. A recent poll showed that it was the most spontaneously recalled political event of the past few months, with one-in-three members of the public able instantly to bring it to mind.
Michael Crick’s investigation, broadcast on C4 News this week, isn’t definitive. There is no audio of the incident, just video images. However, all the circumstantial evidence suggests that Mr Mitchell’s version of events is more accurate than the police’s: he does not visibly rant and there are clearly no “members of public look[ing] visibly shocked”. An email from an ordinary member of the public supposedly corroborating the police log turns out both to have been written by a serving police officer and to have been false.
The police’s case is further undermined by the shabby behaviour of the Police Federation: a tape recording shows that after hearing Mr Mitchell’s account of the episode, representatives then immediately went outside to tell the waiting TV cameras that he’d refused to offer an account and demanded his resignation.
Everyone is entitled to due process, including in this instance the the Met and the Police Federation. However, the allegations which they must now defend themselves against couldn’t be much more serious: a conspiracy to bring about the resignation of a serving cabinet minister.
Few people come out of this incident looking good. When the story first broke, I assumed it was based in more fact than seems now to be the case — I suggested an alternative apology statement to Andrew Mitchell. Meanwhile the Labour Party launched a campaign — Plebs for Police — trading on the (well-founded) presumption that the public would be more likely to believe the police’s version of events than a Tory MP’s.
And let’s not let the public off the hook either: a YouGov poll in October showed 69% thought that Mr Mitchell did call the police officer a “pleb”; 52% thought he should resign. Perhaps those voters should consider their own positions now?
But one man didn’t buy into this public/media group-think that Tory MP = Guilty. He set out to find the truth, and he seems to have got a lot further in doing just that than either the newspapers or the cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood. For sticking up for natural justice applying to everyone, Michael Crick is this week’s Liberal Hero.