Our Dreyfus in a minor key

'Here is an equation of homosexuality, violent crime, promiscuity and cannabis - all promoted by treacherous liberals'
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At school, in history, we learnt about the Dreyfus affair. As "Jock" McInnes, our funny and easily wounded teacher had it, in 1894 Captain Dreyfus was the only Jew on the French General Staff. When secret documents turned up in a bin at the German embassy, it was decided (on the basis of no evidence at all) that Captain D was the man. He was sentenced to life on Devil's Island. It took several years, endless anti-Dreyfus perjuries, Emile Zola's moral weight and a bit of rioting to get the conviction quashed and Dreyfus – broken and ailing – reinstated.

I wonder whether Commander Brian Paddick isn't becoming a British Dreyfus, albeit in a minor key; the battleground over which greater forces rage. The Dreyfus affair soon became a war for the soul of the French officer class, as conducted between traditionalists and meritocrats. The Paddick affair is beginning to resemble a similar struggle for the British police force, with the commander representing collateral damage in the right's campaign against "liberal" policing and the Government.

This is not a campaign run by Her Majesty's Opposition, but by the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, with occasional (though unreliable) support from other tabloids. In the first instance it seeks to convince us that we all ought to live in constant fear – fear of crime, fear of moral collapse, fear of outsiders. Every resource is pressed into the service of this Kulturkampf. The front page of the Mail yesterday, for instance, ran the headline "BLUNKETT: IT'S NOT SAFE TO WALK OUR STREETS". The first lines of the report read: "David Blunkett admitted what people in Britain's cities already knew – the streets are not safe."

He didn't, of course, admit any such thing. Because that would have been both incredibly stupid and completely untrue. He actually said, and I quote: "There is a feeling in some urban areas [my italics] that it is not safe to walk the streets. We must reclaim them for decent, law-abiding citizens." But summarising that sentiment accurately wouldn't have had the same effect. And for those of you who don't know, headlines and reports like this appear virtually every day in the Mail, and then, regrettably, form an important part of the news agenda for BBC programmes.

Enter Paddick, the most senior gay police officer, the man in charge of an area where the laws against possessing cannabis are not being pressed very harshly, and a bloke with a bit of a gob on him. And they hate him. They really do.

At the weekend, simultaneously in The People and The Mail on Sunday a James Renolleau, who is variously a model and a guide at Westminster Abbey, revealed that he had been Paddick's boyfriend. According to Mr Renolleau, Mr Paddick had smoked "100 marijuana joints" in his flat, had cruised gay clubs, had sex under Brighton pier and generally proved himself to be the nightmare queen from Daily Mail hell.

Were, we may ask (for the paper doesn't), Renolleau's confessions motivated by a religious conversion, or had he become ashamed of his own behaviour and minor legal infractions? Perhaps he honestly feels that Mr Paddick is a public liability and that he himself, Renolleau the dope-smoker, should now be prosecuted? Or perhaps he was paid many thousands of pounds for his story; and frankly the more sex in the bushes there is, the more these papers get their money's worth. Well, they don't say. They never do. Whoring is a far more honest game; this looks like pimping.

Commander Paddick denies the more serious accusations, though he does agree that Renolleau smoked cannabis in front of him without the Commander whipping out the handcuffs and frog-marching his partner down to the local slammer. Big deal.

At one level the story has become the excuse for a bit of gay-slagging. Also in yesterday's Mail, a journalist called Neil Sears (a man who, I am sure, is a stranger to adultery, lust, drunkenness and perversity of any kind) had an article entitled "Will the Camp Commander's career go up in a cloud of smoke?" (the Camp Commander? Oh, don't do that to me, Neil!), which seemed to be a profile of Brian Paddick. Complaining that Paddick's previous crimes had merited only "a light slap on the wrist" (get it?), Sears avers that the Commander's homosexuality probably saved him, ever since he "brazenly came out to his colleagues and superiors and continued his relentless rise up the ranks". What did he do? Walk into Paul Condon's office in a gold lamé catsuit and a blond wig? What a shame the Inquisition has been wound up. Imagine the fun a creature like Sears could have had.

But the real agenda is on the editorial page. Here, the flint-woman of north London, Melanie Phillips, makes the connection. She starts by describing Paddick as "an icon for our morally inverted times". A most interesting choice of words. Invert is a term that was once used – pseudo-scientifically – to describe homosexuals back in the good old moral days when you could be lobotomised for it.

Why an icon? This is what she says: "The police have lost control of the streets because of a concerted effort to undermine the very idea of law and order, a process in which a number of senior police officers are – astonishingly – themselves engaged."

If you want to understand the full ambition of Phillips's argument, you just change the sentence structure round a bit. Try this. "A number of senior police officers are engaged in an effort to undermine the very idea of law and order, and – as a direct result – the police have lost control of the streets." Now it's our turn to send for the van from the funny farm. Here is an equation of homosexuality, promiscuity, violent crime and cannabis use. All promoted by this Government and those treacherous liberals.

Nothing here about the canteen culture, Spanish practices (protected to the nth degree by men like Glen Smyth of the Metropolitan Police Federation, who I have twice heard on radio bad-mouthing Commander Paddick) or the need for reform. Mrs Thatcher, for all her braggadocio about fighting every battle never dared to take on the vested interests in the force. Nothing about the old corruption of leaking stories to favoured journalists, which I experienced firsthand when I was at the BBC.

And what happens? At the recommendation of the Metropolitan Police Authority, Commander Paddick is moved from his job (hopefully temporarily) – a job in which he has helped to organise a successful crackdown on the street crime that so convulses the Mail. Go figure.

Rules is rules, and if Paddick has transgressed some serious ones then he should be disciplined. It is instructive, however, to see that the Conservative Party itself has not so far been drawn into this row. It still, I imagine, fears the consequences of being seen to be – once again – numbered among the forces of black reaction. Good. For those of us who are not anxious to see a return to the days of rampant homophobia, unquestioning acceptance of impossible drug laws and the unbearable hypocrisy of the moral right, this is a battle we need to win. A little like Dreyfus, then.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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