Philip Hensher: Security conspiracy? Don't be so absurd!

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The Independent Online

The authorities have taken an extraordinary step after the arrest of the suspects in the bombing plot. In holding a press conference to detail the evidence against them, they may also have taken a risky one. Already, liberal groups have objected that the press conference may be prejudicial; individual suspects may not even be accused of some of the activities described, and they have the right to be tried individually, for individual offences.

Nevertheless, it is easy to see why the police in conjunction with the Crown Prosecution Service have taken this radical step. They want to make it absolutely clear, as early as possible, that in this case, they had a solid basis for taking action. Following surveillance, the police say that they have recovered bomb-making equipment, dangerous chemicals, instruction manuals, and suicide notes recorded on video like the ones left behind by the July 7 bombers. It is for the courts to decide guilt, but by laying out the general nature of the evidence at this early stage, the police have made it plain that they had a responsibility to take immediate action.

But why should they feel this obligation, and take this risk, when the evidence will be laid out in court in due course? The answer came, for me, while trapped in Vienna by the airline chaos. All British Airways flights were cancelled; I queued and queued and got a transfer on to an Austrian flight the next day; I turned up the next day, to find that had been cancelled too. It was the sort of awful experience happening to tens of thousands of people at the same time, all over the world, and not in itself interesting.

What was interesting, on the other hand, was an opinion being voiced in the long queues which I'd previously thought was only held by a very few cynics. More than once, I heard people say that the Government had mounted these security scares to justify their own actions in restricting personal liberty. That is obviously not true, and it is extraordinary to hear that being said by anyone since the July 7 bombings. But the reason the police and the CPS have been so eager to put a stop to any such gossip in this case is the mystery still surrounding other, less successful security efforts.

In February 2003, for instance, David Blunkett, then Home Secretary, ordered tanks to surround Heathrow. What was the dangerous intelligence which led to this drastic move? The faulty intelligence which led to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes was not freely offered up for anyone's examination. The immense and fruitless raid on a house in Forest Gate, culminating in another shooting and the arrest of two brothers, must have been set off by something, but what?

For security reasons, some of this information probably has to be kept secret. But there's no doubt that the obscurity about the basis of these actions, combined with their failure, has led to a serious loss of confidence in the security services. I don't believe the conspiracy theories I was hearing at Vienna airport; the authorities would be idiotic to take drastic action without proper reason.

An explanation of the reasons why such immense inconvenience was caused is very welcome, and should go a long way towards restoring proper confidence. But confidence can also be restored by explanation when it turns out that the information was wrong, and did not lead to any plot being uncovered.

Rick's poetic licence

How nice to see the BBC marking the centenary of a poet so extensively, in the form of a Betjeman season; but how dismal the celebrity-driven form it takes.

Rick Stein devoted himself to wandering around Cornwall, talking about himself and, in the end, making a fish pie which, he assured us, he thought Betjeman would have liked. Apart from A N Wilson and a token poet, the hour was taken up by such inanities as speculating on whether Joanna Lumley, who had never met him, might have been his perfect girl 30 years ago.

May I make the point that Auden, the greatest English poet since Tennyson, has his centenary next year? I'd like to see the fish pie that Mr Rick Stein could possibly produce to celebrate that genius with.

* Maureen Lipman remarked the other day that she'd read Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and that it was perfectly all right, but she couldn't see why it was such a general success. But isn't that a definition of the bestseller in any field? Among the things which, recently, I've thought perfectly-all-right-but-can't-understand-why are Lily Allen, Kandinsky at the Tate, Pirates of the Caribbean, Tom Stoppard's Rock 'N' Roll, and David Mitchell's Black Swan Green. None of them is remotely worth denigrating, and I got through all of them reasonably cheerfully. But should a vast hole in the earth swallow up any one of them, something would turn up to take its place fairly promptly. They all hit the right level; just enough character to be briefly memorable but not enough to put any potential punter off. The critical rapture inspired by each surely represents a belief that the audience is more likely to find moderate enjoyment than a strong reaction in either direction.