Richard Ingrams' Week: I don't see why I should pay the Speaker's legal bills

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The Independent Online

It was reported in August that the Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin (nicknamed Gorbals Mick after his Glaswegian origins) had run up a bill of £3,000 with the notoriously bullish libel solicitors Carter Ruck.

Martin had been charged in the press with allowing his wife to be excused all the security measures which other people have to submit to when entering the House of Commons.

As far as I can tell, no litigation followed but it was reported that Martin had submitted an expenses claim for £3,000 to cover the Carter Ruck bill.

I remember commenting at the time that in the scale of Carter Ruck's charges (familiar to any journalist with experience of libel), £3,000 would not go very far. A much more realistic figure of £21,516 has now been quoted, but even this huge amount does not appear to relate to any litigation. The House of Commons Commission which deals with such matters, refers only to "advice" in connection with the need to "counteract" a series of articles.

It would be unusual if the bill related to work carried out by Carter Ruck in dealing wth journalists' inquiries. Normally the Speaker would be expected to deal with press queries himself, or leave it to one of his staff.

It strikes me that the only point of hiring a lawyer to do the job would be to warn journalists to tread carefully or they would risk a libel action.

None of this would matter too much were it not for the fact that the taxpayer will have to fork up the £21,516 (and there I had better leave it for fear of any possible legal repercussions).

Laws not clearly defined won't work

Despite serving as Home Secretary for some years and now as Justice Minister, Jack Straw has failed to grasp the simple fact that to be effective, a law must be clearly defined and be capable of being enforced.

Not so long ago when Blair made glorification of terrorism a criminal offence, it was pointed out that glorification was not the sort of word that ought to be included in a statute. Glorification of terrorism was such a cloudy concept that, as someone remarked, it could be used to prosecute W B Yates for his famous poem "Easter 1916" ("a terrible beauty is born").

Even terrorism was a nebulous and possibly meaningless expression. As my fellow columnist Robert Fisk has written, "It is not a definition. It is a political contrivance. 'Terrorists' are those who use violence against the side that is using the word." Straw now wants to extend the laws banning incitement to race and religious hatred to homophobia as well. He might perhaps begin by acknowledging that homophobia is a recently invented word intended to suggest that anyone guilty of anti-gay prejudice is suffering from a psychological condition similar to an irrational fear of snakes or spiders.

When it comes to defining the new legislation Straw's intention is again almost meaningless. It will enable the police, he says, "to pursue those who create an atmosphere or climate in which hatred or bullying can be fostered". With the British police now a by-word for incompetence and farcical devotion to the demands of political correctness, it beggars belief to think that they will in future have the power to decide if somebody is "creating an atmosphere" and, if so, to arrest them.

* Some people at the BBC have been crying foul over the resignation of BBC1 controller Peter Fincham following the now celebrated Crowngate affair when the Queen was wrongly accused in a documentary of storming out of a photographic session with the American photographer Annie Leibowitz.

If anyone should go, they say, it is Fincham's superior, the so-called head of vision Ms Jana Bennett, who failed to realise the seriousness of the false charge.

The BBC can perhaps afford to lose Fincham but they can't possibly do without Bennett because it is she, more than anyone, who determines the way the BBC must go in the years to come.

Was it not Bennett, after all, who pioneered what she calls skyscraper projects – and not just any old skyscraper projects but ones with "a powerful multi-platform aspect"?

Only recently Jana Bennett spelt out her exciting mission statement as follows: "Now that it's clear the conversation genuinely can be a creative two-way process, and in many cases multi-way, we are witnessing the possibilities opened up when many ripples bump against one another... we have the opportunity more than ever before to willingly seed the clouds of creativity and see a creative rainfall."

Now we perhaps begin to see why Bennett is called the head of vision and what an exciting vision it is. No wonder the BBC is prepared to pay her £400,000 a year – money that, of course, comes from us, the grateful licence-fee payers.

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