Where, a few months ago, Tom Watson and much of the rest of the country seemed ready to believe that the late Lord Brittan, the former cabinet minister and European Commissioner, was suddenly “as close to evil as any human being could get”, now the climate of national opinion – and particularly as represented in parts of the press – views Mr Watson, and maybe even the police, as seemingly “close to evil”.
This is because of the violence of the language Mr Watson used, and the failure of the police and all concerned to tell Lord Brittan that certain proceedings against him had been dropped. Now, of course, he is dead, and his family understandably distressed. For his part, Mr Watson, addressing the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, did take the opportunity to apologise to the family of Lord Brittan; he seemed genuinely penitent about events.
The Metropolitan Police also said sorry, though again too late, with senior officers appearing before the committee to try to make sense of what had happened in at least one of the series of inquiries, that of the case of “Jane”, an accusation of rape dating back half a century.
Some perspective is clearly required, and the committee attempted to provide it. On the immediate issue of why Lord Brittan was not told before he died that certain proceedings against him had been dropped, the chair, Keith Vaz, was right to conclude that it would seem to be the tardy procedures of the Metropolitan Police that could be to blame. That was not the fault of individual officers, but it has a lot to do with the convoluted procedures they have to follow, and might have followed more carefully given the high public profile of this case. That profile was in part a result of the activities of Mr Watson, and it does raise once again the question of the rightful role of an MP in such campaigning, and how and when MPs should “amplify”, in Mr Watson’s phrase, the allegations of abuse they want to make. When, in other words, is parliamentary privilege open to abuse?
For Simon Danczuk and others – for example, in the context of the late Cyril Smith – events turned out to vindicate them. So far, they have not entirely done so for Mr Watson. And yet in the climate created by the Jimmy Savile scandal and the Rotherham abuse case, the as-yet-untested Janner case and others, the overwhelming concern was that victims were not coming forward and, if they did, were not taken seriously by the authorities. In that circumstance, Mr Watson took it upon himself to become a champion of rights and an advocate, in some cases, for individuals. The suggestion now is that, as a result, those claims were given greater weight than the police might otherwise have accorded them.
There is nothing wrong with Mr Watson having involved himself, because there were so many earlier cases of justice denied. Mr Watson has the right to get things wrong when he is acting in good faith, with a genuine sense of the public interest. He ought, though, to have been more measured and calm in his language.
The proceedings were tightly constrained by Mr Vaz to the “Jane” case; supposed crimes by other public figures were not examined. The danger now is that the pendulum will swing too far the other way, with victims who make apparently extraordinary claims against public figures dismissed as fantasists, and the MPs, journalists and campaigners who help them to seek justice derided as publicity-seeking, partisan manipulators. If that does happen, then a further disservice to justice will be done.
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