The relief on the faces of Neil and Christine Hamilton at the end of the last fortnight's bizarre events told its own story. For most of us this saga has been nothing other than light entertainment that has filled the starved columns of the press during the lean period of the silly season. Although the Tories' leadership election has managed to occupy much of the time, the Hamiltons saved the day for us during the holiday truce when Iain Duncan Smith and Kenneth Clarke were off the airwaves.
But while this may have seemed like a huge media circus, encouraged by the Hamiltons, we should not lose sight of the fact that a serious injustice has been done to two innocent people. Whatever our views on Mr Hamilton's arguments with Mohamed Al Fayed, we should be utterly shocked that it is possible, without a shred of evidence, for the police to have put him and his wife through a most terrible ordeal.
The first reaction of far too many people was to suggest that there must have been no smoke without fire. That, in itself, is damaging to someone's reputation. When the media frenzy was at its height, during the early stages of the story, several television crews interviewed passers-by in the village of Alderley Edge, near where the couple live. The common reaction by several was that because the libel jury had disbelieved the Hamiltons last year then they must automatically be disbelieved on this occasion.
The whole affair raises important questions about the role of the police, and someone somewhere at Scotland Yard has far more serious questions to answer than they were asking of the Hamiltons. The suspicion cannot be avoided that the police seem to have a voyeuristic and perverse delight in intruding into the lives of those with a high profile.
It is not enough simply to say that there is "no evidence" to support the allegations. It was outrageous that the Hamiltons were even questioned at a police station in the first place – let alone arrested. It is all very well for the Metropolitan Police to say that it takes "all allegations of sexual assault extremely seriously" and has a duty to investigate them as thoroughly as possible. "All allegations" extremely seriously? No, I do not think so. That would be an open invitation for every fantasist – with or without the help of Mr Max Clifford – to make whatever outlandish allegations they can think up against anyone.
What is worrying is that PC Plod was even taken in by these allegations against the Hamiltons in the first place. Surely there has to be some verifiable evidence which prompts them to pursue an investigation. There must now be an overwhelming public duty for the Metropolitan Police to reveal what it was in the original complaint that persuaded them that they had to contact the Hamiltons with a view to arresting them. If the names had not been someone of their notoriety, one wonders if the couple would have been taken to Barkingside police station at all.
And just who made sure that the nation's rat packs were there in place to record the scenes? Mrs Hamilton has made it clear that neither she nor Neil called the media to the police station. So it is pretty obvious that someone in the police tipped off the media that there would be a show worth reporting. Who knows whether any money changed hands for this information?
Many have criticised the Hamiltons – wrongly – for not remaining silent, for fighting their corner under the glare of the camera, but what alternative did they have? With the media outside the police station, clearly aware of the name of the couple who were inside being interviewed, how long would their names have been kept secret? Imagine how it would have looked if a police statement that "a man and a woman were arrested in connection with an allegation of rape" was issued while the Hamiltons' names, with them remaining silent, immediately became associated with the story.
But the aftermath of the arrest was an even greater indictment of PC Plod, who allowed the passage of time to drag on without accepting or appearing to check their clear alibis. The Hamiltons managed to satisfy the court of media and public opinion, within about 24 hours, as to their movements, but still the police persisted in saying that their inquiries were "ongoing". Surely they could have checked the couple's whereabouts on the day in question the moment that the allegation was made. Any arrest would then have been unnecessary.
I suspect that by the time of the initial Hamilton media blitz the police recognised that they had either got a case of mistaken identity or, more likely, that they were investigating the claims of a hoaxer or fantasist. But police politics, bruised egos and considerations of how to manage the press suggestions of police incompetence had probably become more important to senior officers by then than the investigation of the alleged crime. Seizing the Hamiltons' computers and searching their Cheshire home, under threat of bashing down the front door while terrifying Mrs Hamilton's mother, became a crude method of buying time for the police to work out how they were eventually going to extricate themselves from the mess of their own creation.
It is clear that, in cases such as this, there needs to be a public investigation into all the circumstances that led to the original arrest and into the long passage of time before the police were able to tell us what the rest of us already knew about the Hamiltons' innocence.
The police have a disagreeable history when it comes to the way they handle events surrounding those in public life. Only last year the identity of the Prime Minister's son, Euan Blair, a minor at the time, was released to the press when he was arrested for being drunk in Leicester Square. Yet again the suspicion was fuelled that a rotten apple in the shape of PC Plod had sold the story of the "catch" to a newspaper.
In my own case, literally weeks before the 1988 Local Government Bill – which abolished dog licences – was enacted, I revealed in a speech in Parliament that, like 3 million others, I kept a dog without paying the 37p dog licence. Believe it or not, after the story appeared in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph, PC Plod came complete with Panda car to my constituency home to take a statement. He demanded to see the dog and the licence that I had confessed – in Parliament – to not having.
Finally, after weeks of idiotic publicity and goodness knows what argy bargy involving senior police officers, all the way up to the chief constable, the charge was dropped. The irony was that by the time I was told, I was not even breaking the law, because the Bill had received Royal Assent. But the cost of this nonsense, like the cost of the Hamilton case, meant that forever after I was, and remain, unsympathetic to police claims of a lack of resources.
Entertaining though all this may have been, there is a clear case for compensation from the police to the Hamiltons for wrongful arrest, and the cost of this investigation should now be a matter of public record.