Richard Ingrams' Week: Don't blame us - the system's at fault

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The Independent Online

I was half expecting Charles Clarke, faced with allegations of incompetence on a huge scale, to tell us that it was all right because throughout he had acted in good faith.

This has become the traditional all-purpose defence for any politician who finds himself in a hole.

It was Blair himself who was able to brush aside all the false assurances about weapons of mass destruction, the dodgy dossiers, the death of Dr David Kelly - not forgetting the thousands of deaths in Iraq itself - by insisting that throughout he had acted in good faith. And for that he was given the benefit of the doubt by the likes of Lord Butler of Brockwell.

Clarke, however, has come up with a new formula - one, I suspect, that we will hear a lot of in the months to come. Brushing aside the suggestion of any personal liability for what went wrong, he says that there was a "systemic failure".

Systemic is a new word in the political vocabulary, having previously been a strictly medical expression. But one cansee the advantage of it from Clarke's point of view. What it means is that individual politicians and civil servants can be absolved of any personal responsibility, and the blame put on the system.

A variation on the same theme came yesterday with the news that the Wiltshire police were not to blame for the death of Hayley Richards. The barmaid was killed just a week after reporting that she had been attacked by her boyfriend (who was subsequently found guilty of her murder). No action had been taken.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission has ruled that no individual officers can be held responsible for what happened. Instead, there had been what they call "institutional failures".

So no heads will roll, and nobody will resign. It was all just the fault of the institution (or the system - whichever you prefer).

Meet my digital replacement

As a part-time church organist of many years standing - or sitting, if you prefer - I have mixed feelings about the arrival of a new karaoke machine described as "a digitally-enhanced church organ that can play hymns without an organist".

Described as the HT300 Hymnal Plus, the machine is said to be capable of playing more than 2,700 hymns, both ancient and modern. I wouldn't be too surprised if the gadget doesn't sooner or later lead to my redundancy.

One of the disadvantages of being a church organist is that you don't get to choose the hymns, and nowadays that can mean being expected to play some fairly strange and uninspiring modern hymns, which I can imagine the HT300 would probably do a much better job with.

I should be reluctant to go, all the same. Having toplay the organ makes me go to church, which otherwise I might not do. And in most churches the organist is hidden from view, so you don't have to look interested during the sermon. You can even read a book.

* Since my friend Francis Wheen published a list of things he had never done, I have been thinking of compiling a similar list of my own. It makes a change from Desert Island Discs or Room 101 and may, for all I know, be more revealing.

To date it goes as follows: I have never seen The Sound of Music, I have never owned a mobile phone or read a Harry Potter book or bought a copy of The Economist.

I could add that I have never done jury service. But this is not due to personal choice on my part. I have been reliably informed that the reason is that I have a criminal record - having once been found guilty of Contempt of Court.

I was therefore interested to learn from Baroness Helena Kennedy, who this week delivered the James Cameron lecture, that it is nowadays quite common for policemen and judges to sit on juries. Indeed, according to the Baroness, the distinguished QC and part-time judge Geoffrey Robertson is even now doing jury service.

You might think it rather unfair, when judges and policemen already play an important part in the judicial system on the bench or in the witness box, that they should be given access to the jury room as well. But according to the Baroness, it is all part of the Government's policy to secure more convictions, this being something which the focus groups have told them the voters want to see.

All the same it seems contrary to our British tradition of fair play to allow judges to sit on juries but not criminals such as myself.